BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Dazed and confused about the plethora of new books? No idea what to buy? Try this selection of some of the year's best in novels, poetry, stories, history, biography and crime: there must be something for everybody here
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The Independent Culture
NEAL ASCHERSON

I banged into lamp-posts as I walked about the streets unable to stop reading Ali Smith's first novel, Like (Virago pounds 12.99). A mesmerising narrative talent had me gripped, although she is mean with non-essential information about her characters (what did happen to this woman or that child?). And I was very moved by Barrie Hesketh's Taking Off (New Iona Press pounds 8.95), a memoir about how he and his wife, the actress Marianne Hesketh, founded and ran the Mull Little Theatre until her early and tragic death. I was delighted with the clarity and confidence of Eric Hobsbawm's selected essays and lectures, On History (Weidenfeld pounds 20). Another treat was John Robertson's editing of and brilliant introduction to Political Works by Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (CUP pounds 45 / pounds 15.95), at last giving a broad portrait of this deeply European Scot who opposed the 1707 Union and yet - like Boswell - was much in love with the best of London. Of chronicles of our own time, I most enjoyed Tim Garton Ash's The File (HarperCollins pounds 12.95), an enquiry and self-examination set off by reading his own Stasi file in Berlin, and John Lewis Gaddis's big We Now Know (OUP pounds 25), a rethink of early Cold War history based on the freshly-opened Soviet and American archives.

ELSPETH BARKER

This year my absolute favourite novel is Andrew Miller's Ingenious Pain (Sceptre pounds 14.99), a brooding disquisition on the relationship of the intellect and the senses and a wild adventure through 18th-century England and Russia, medicine, madness, landscape and weather, rendered in prose of consummate beauty. Equally brilliant is John Banville's The Untouchable (Picador pounds 15.99), an intricately layered portrait of an exposed spy, former Master of the Queen's Pictures. I was shaken and stirred too by Bernard Mac Laverty's Grace Notes (Cape pounds 14.99): loss, love and transubstantiation through music. Colin Welch died this year. The Odd Thing About the Colonel (Bellew pounds 17.50) is a collection of his essays, reviews and pieces. Allusive and addictive, they blaze with passion, wit and intelligence; they are also generous. Who now can write like this? For a once-in-a-lifetime sumptuous present, the Folio Society's Golden Treasury (ed James Michie, pounds 39.95) is unbeatable; gorgeous in apparel and content, it extends Palgrave's 1861 original, ranging back to Wyatt and forward to Larkin with many interim inclusions and a few exclusions. It is adorned by wood engravings, accurately described here by Simon Brett as "the natural accompaniment to lyric poetry". Finally, for pony book readers ancient and modern, the quintessential volume: the three remarkable Pullein-Thompson sisters, Josephine, Diana and Christine, recall their adventurous childhood in Fair Girls and Grey Horses (Allison and Busby pounds 15.99 / pounds 8.99). Bliss.

BEN PIMLOTT

New Labour, new biographies - especially of Old Labour figures. It has been a good year for the genre, possibly reflecting a revival in left- of-centre curiosity three or four years ago, when political fortunes changed, and the historians in question started work. In Callaghan: A Life (OUP pounds 25) Kenneth Morgan makes skilful use of his access to his subject to provide a compelling account of a politician who gave us cats- eyes on our roads, pioneered Lib-Lab pacts, and was once described by Hugh Dalton as "first class though with no manners and ruthless ambition". Patricia Hollis's no-holds-barred Jennie Lee: A Life (OUP pounds 25) demolishes a whole tranche of Bevanite mythology, in a brilliant portrayal of the ILP Clydesiders' favourite niece. Hollis presents Jennie as a vain and selfish manipulator who helped to split the Labour Party in the 1930s and 1950s, but also as a fiery people's princess who put arts policy on the map and set up the Open University. In a separate category, Roy Hattersley's Fifty Years On: A Prejudiced History of Britain Since the War (Little, Brown pounds 20) is an entertaining, stylish and generally unbiased romp through the last half century by Britain's leading born-again socialist.

HERMIONE LEE

Apart from two obvious candidates for any Booker shortlist, Peter Carey's Dickens-haunted, sensationally bold and brilliant Jack Maggs (Faber pounds 15.99) and Brian Moore's elegant, intelligent, gripping story of French trickery in 19th-century Algeria, The Magician's Wife (Bloomsbury pounds 15.99), the fictions I most enjoyed this year, also from Bloomsbury, were Pauline Melville's marvellously dramatic and involving first novel, The Ventriloquist's Tale (pounds 15.99), a love-story that is also a political history of the Amazonian Amerindians, full of colour and energy, and Candia McWilliam's fine, funny first collection of stories, Wait Till I Tell You (pounds 14.99) - precisely observed, immaculately written, and very odd.

DAVID CANNADINE

The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence produced a clutch of books this summer. Much the best was Sunil Khilnani's The Idea of India (Hamish Hamilton pounds 17.99) which, within a relatively brief compass, explains how Nehru and his colleagues sought to unite a vast, diverse and impoverished society, and to transform it into a democratic and secular nation state. Equally short and equally stimulating is Richard J Evans's In Defence of History (Granta 15.99), which robustly re-asserts the autonomy and importance of the subject against the corroding onslaught of recent post-modernist criticism. This is a wise and sensible book, which should be read by anyone who cares about the past and the way we think and write about it. The same might be also be said of Eric Hobsbawm's On History (Weidenfeld pounds 20), a sparkling collection published to mark the author's 80th birthday, in which he meditates upon the ironies, disappointments (and possibilities) of being a Marxist in a post-Marxist world.

MARINA WARNER

Iain Sinclair is the true inheritor of the visionary, magical, Blakean strain in Londoners' history and in Lights Out for the Territory (Granta pounds 12.99), he reconfigures the city streets, finding potent signs and wonders in the most unlikely places. In Salt Water (Faber pounds 6.99), Andrew Motion combines perfectly poised, touching love poems and elegies with his journal retracing Keats's last voyage to Italy; all the more affecting for its quiet prose, it makes a haunting prologue to his magisterial biography of the poet, Keats (Faber pounds 20). Goran Simic's Sprinting from the Graveyard (English versions by David Harsent, OUP pounds 7.99) gives mordant glimpses of cruelty, loss and pain during the siege of Sarajevo; his poems raise a better cenotaph than any historical analysis so far. Edmund White, a beguiling, witty and acute chronicler of past times in The Farewell Symphony (Chatto pounds 16.99), strikingly pushes out the borders of fiction as the terrain of self-exploring - and of truth-telling.

BLAKE MORRISON

I never thought I'd find myself recommending a 950-page biography, but James H Jones's Life of Alfred Kinsey (Norton pounds 28), the product of 25 years' research, is a magisterial account of a driven man and the repressed culture in which he had to work. Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid (Faber pounds 14.99 / pounds 7.99), thrillingly narrated versions of the Metamorphoses, are further evidence of a remarkable flowering in the Laureate's recent work. Thomas Lynch's The Undertaking (Cape pounds 9.99) is a poet's measured account of his day-job running the family funeral business in Michigan, beautifully written, pleasingly un- morbid and deeply wise. The Booker judges were much criticised this year, but I greatly enjoyed their choice of winner, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (Flamingo pounds 15.99).

LINDA COLLEY

John Brewer's huge The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Harper Collins pounds 30/ pounds 19.99) compensates for its weight with vivid writing and copious illustrations, and will be a revelation to those for whom Georgian culture means no more than the country house. Robin Blackburn's The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern 1492-1800 (Verso pounds 25) is naturally much darker, but provocative and masterly in range. It addresses not just Britain's role in the slave trade (and consequently part of the cash-flow sustaining Brewer's glorious culture), but the involvement of other European states and their colonies. Roy Foster is one of those rare historians whose books have helped change contemporary politics. The latest expression of his conviction that Ireland and Britain must be looked at in terms of cross-fertilisation not just conflict is W B Yeats A Life: The Apprentice Mage (OUP pounds 25), a wonderfully thoughtful work.

IAN JACK

There were a few points to dislike about Arundhati Roy's first (and, if we believe her, possibly last) novel The God of Small Things (Flamingo pounds 15.99). Too many Kutesy Kapital Letters to describe the thoughts of Tiny Tots, too much Rushdiean word-play, and a slightly wonky start. A lot was made of these faults by Booker commentators and by reviewers, but I think the Booker judges were absolutely right to give her the prize. This is a good novel and now and then a brilliant one: objects, people and feelings shine in it. It's written with amazing confidence: you feel the writer is unaware of risk and failure and has thrown her life into the book. Shorthand descriptions of its Indian setting, with their references to caste, spritituality, politics and poverty, are misleading. This isn't a tract, or that dismaying item "a novel about India", but an affecting and intricate story about universal first and last things. India the political state is lucidly and wittily described in Sunil Khilnani's The Idea of India (Hamish Hamilton pounds 17.99). I also admired - and was educated by - Politics and the Pound by Philip Stephens (Papermac pounds 10), which left me with the surprising feeling that the EMU quandary facing Britain could be understood.

CANDIA McWILLIAM

The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer (HarperCollins pounds 30 / pounds 19.99) is a long meditation on connoisseurship. It is compendious, elegant and I wish it were even longer. Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid (Faber pounds 14.99 / pounds 7.99) are concise, physical and shocking. Their images clang like fresh coin, yet the sources are common to us all. American Visions by Robert Hughes (Harvill pounds 35) should simply not go unread by anyone who is at all interested in seeing, in a moral or aesthetic sense. Hughes isn't only a polymath; he is a polypath. The best of foreign fiction I read was Sad Strains of a Slow Waltz (Bloomsbury pounds 14.99) by Irene Dische. An interpretation of war and the German intellectual sensibility, it's also an unbearable, plausible, peculiar love story. Jonathan Coe's The House of Sleep (Viking pounds 14.99) shows energy, tenderness, social commitment, all in a style that comes like breath. The writer is one of the very best contemporary British novelists, thrillingly original as well as accessible. Helen Storey wrote a book full of verve, Fighting Fashion (Faber pounds 25/ pounds 12.99), about her jumpy, even tragic life and tense profession, that of fashion designer. She is talented, beautiful and clever; accordingly, life has harmed her. The Cost of a Reputation by Ian Mitchell (Topical Books pounds 15, ISBN 0 9531581 0 1) is a gripping account of the "causes, courses and consequences" of the libel case between Lord Aldington and Count Tolstoy. The File, by Timothy Garton Ash (HarperCollins pounds 12.99), I commend to everyone who scrutinises his own life with proper attention. Finally, James Buchan's Frozen Desire (Picador pounds 17.99) is an enquiry into money, written in that brilliant essay-poetic style of which (this) Buchan is the master, crammed with imagined events in the history of cupidity, hard fact and extraordinary beauty.

ANDREW MOTION

R F Foster's W B Yeats A Life: The Apprentice Mage (OUP pounds 25) is a marvellous combination of deep research, wide thinking and subtle balance - an achievement worthy of its subject. Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid (Faber pounds 14.99 / pounds 7.99) is a hell-for-leather triumph - a fantastic piece of work which makes the fantastic feel brutally real. The Selected Letters of R L Stevenson (ed Ernest Mehew, Yale pounds 19.95) distils the varied brilliance of eight individual volumes. It's jam-packed with wit, charm, descriptive power and pathos.

ANDREW O'HAGAN

The best two prose books of the year are about men who forgot themselves. Fintan O'Toole's A Traitor's Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Granta pounds 20) puts some Irishness back into one of the purest English-speaking voices in the history of letters. O'Toole is Ireland's most interesting journalist, and his attitude to plays and politics, and the relation of one to the other, is never less than dead smart. Thanks to O'Toole's patience and prose, old Sheridan gleams anew, and many a professorial tome will seem dull beside this excellent book of spells. O'Toole is now chief jewel in the diadem of the New York Daily News, and it is the story of a previous New Yorker that is taken up in Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell (Cape pounds 9.99). The subject is a Greenwich village hobo, who seems to be writing an Oral History of New York. I'm not giving away the secret of this terrific thing - nor of Mitchell himself, a phenomenon - but will only say that if you give this book as a present to somebody and they don't like it, you ought to chuck them right away. It's a good test. The best new poet in Britain is Robin Robertson. His first collection, A Painted Field (Picador pounds 6.99), is both heartbreaking and harrowing, and I liked it very much. Poems with good bones here, and complicated blood.

MICHLE ROBERTS

So much good fiction has come out this year that it's hard to choose just a few novels to recommend. The Way I Found Her by Rose Tremain (Sinclair- Stevenson pounds 15.99) is a bittersweet story of a 13-year-old boy discovering Paris and first love, narrated in the first person, and utterly gripping and beguiling. Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (Bloomsbury pounds 10.99), beautifully translated by Faith Evans, is a classic from 1943, mixing passion and politics as its existentialist heroine embarks on a desire-fuelled route of living at full-tilt. Adele by Mary Flanagan (Bloomsbury pounds 10.99) unveils prostitution and perversion in pre-war Paris via a literary detective tale. Candia McWilliam's collection of stories Wait Till I Tell You (Bloomsbury pounds 14.99) is a winner. Out of the wealth of good poetry this year, I'd recommend Dreams, Like Heretics by Alison Fell (Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99), remarkable for its unashamed passion and lyrical power, and Beyond Bedlam: Poems Written Out of Mental Distress (ed Ken Smith & Matthew Sweeney, Anvil Press pounds 7.95)

JOAN SMITH

The New Life by Orhan Pamuk (Faber pounds 14.99) confirms the Turkish novelist as an innovative voice, someone who uses fiction to write about ideas without falling into didacticism. It's also a penetrating study of the power, not so much of texts, but what people project into them. Ruth Rendell and P D James are both on top form this year, with Road Rage (Hutchinson pounds 16.99) and A Certain Justice (Faber pounds 15.99). Rendell's novel has the contemporary feel we have come to expect from her recent books, using eco-terrorism as the basis for a clever detective story with a wonderfully labyrinthine denouement. The setting of James's last mystery, the Inns of Court, creates a traditional world on the brink of falling apart, catching the reader unawares with its sly modernity. Jenny Uglow's Hogarth: A Life and a World (Faber pounds 25) is a compelling portrait not just of the artist but of 18th-century London. Another non-fiction book which has given me great pleasure is Classic Turkish Cookery by Ghillie Basan (Tauris Parke Books pounds 19.95). The recipes, beautifully photographed by Jonathan Basan, are authentic and practical for the British kitchen.

DAVID GILMOUR

The most delightful book I read this year was Richard Cobb's The End of the Line (John Murray pounds 20), an engaging and eccentric memoir written by a brilliant and inimitable historian just before his death in 1996. Among biographies, R F Foster's W B Yeats A Life: The Apprentice Mage (OUP pounds 25) is a magnificent work of scholarship, while John Rosselli's The Life of Bellini (CUP pounds 27.95/pounds 9.95) is a highly perceptive study of a composer who by now surely deserves a lasting revival. William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain (HarperCollins pounds 18) is a brave and fascinating account of the writer's journeys among the Christian communities of the Middle East.

JULIE MYERSON

So many books stopped me in my tracks this year, but I was moved, entertained and inspired by: Robert Boswell's The Geography of Desire (Quartet pounds 7), an exploration of social dislocation and sensual longing, daringly uncool but never soppy; Jenny Diski's thrillingly claustrophobic memoir Skating to Antarctica (Granta pounds 14.99): she turns her heart and psyche inside out and is clever and honest about what she finds. P B Parris's His Arms Are Full of Broken Things (Viking pounds 16), a novelised biography of poet Charlotte Mew, whose passionate spirit seeps eerily through Parris's touching and dignified prose. Chris Bojalian's subtle, scary Midwives (Chatto pounds 9.99), a stay-up-all-night tale of a Vermont midwife's home delivery going gruesomely wrong: suspenseful, wise and very moving. Mary Gaitskill's stories Because They Wanted To (Picador pounds 15.99) align breathtaking phrases and credibly skewed characters: a near perfect collection. Rose Tremain's The Way I Found Her (Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 15.99) is a grainy snap of modern Paris and a pubescent boy torn between sex and Action Man; her prose is pure pleasure. And Rachel Cusk's A Country Life (Picador pounds 15.99) - alternately mad, horrid, embarrassing and laugh-out-loud funny. I dreaded its end and envied its author.

DAVID SYLVESTER

My choice is a book which shows how a piece of writing about art can be simultaneously informative, illuminating, provocative and entertaining. It is The Language of the Body: Drawings by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon by John Elderfield (Abrams pounds 55). The subject is the drawings from the nude of a French painter (1758-1823) who was once a major influence, has long been neglected and has still not been widely rediscovered; in fact, this is the first book about him ever published in English. Elderfield's writing is measured, elegant and vibrant with intimations of the pleasures of looking at art that celebrates baser pleasures. It looks deeply into individual artistic personality and its psychopathological contradictions while always seeing him clearly in the context of his rivals and ancestors. And it achieves a perfect balance between involvement and detachment.

ROY FOSTER

Fintan O'Toole's A Traitor's Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Granta pounds 20) fizzes and dazzles like its protagonist's plays, and scores especially high by repositioning the arriviste Irishman in the milieu of revolutionary politics as well as the grandest Georgian society. The novel I enjoyed most was Javier Maras's A Heart So White (Panther pounds 6.99), which explores the atmosphere as well as the suppressed prehistory of a marriage through memory, secrets and (in several senses) translation. Subtle, funny, untrustworthy, full of idiosyncratic disquisitions, it reads like an insidious voice in your ear. And I derived diverse pleasures from Frederick O'Dwyer's lavish study of The Architecture of Deane and Woodward (Cork University Press pounds 60), which traces the connections between the great Victorian firm of Irish architects, their ingenious stone-carvers and pre-Raphaelite aesthetics. The enduring results include the Ruskinian- Venetian Museum Building at Trinity College, Dublin's Kildare Street Club (crawling with surreally carved animals, including monkeys playing billiards), the Oxford Museum (which went too far even for Ruskin) and (last but not least) the Killarney Lunatic Asylum.

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