Reading for pleasure? Our writers choose the titles they most admired and enjoyed this year; on the next few pages, a wide range of ideas about what to give this Christmas
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The book for which I felt most respect was Orlando Figes's enormous history A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (Cape pounds 20). The most original book was Isobel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing (Vintage pounds 7.99), a personal account of European gypsies which breaks with fondness and evasions, tells it like it is and in consequence makes discoveries about "marginal" society which leave sociologists standing. In verse, I go for Valerie Gillie's The Ringing Rock (Scottish Contemporary Poets pounds 4.95) which got a well-earned prize. Written in English, these poems have an almost Gaelic fastidiousness and dignity. The best novel I read is screaming for a translator. This is Der Vorleser (The Reader) by Bernhard Schlink, an unforgettable short tale about love, horror and mercy in Germany before and after 1945, published by Diogenes in Zurich. Word of mouth about this novel ran all over Europe months before the publicity machine caught up. The book which opened most doors, though, was Tomas Venclova's Alexander Wat (Yale pounds 25), a critical biography of a Polish poet and political sufferer who is scarcely known in the West.


Beryl Bainbridge's Every Man for Himself (Duckworth pounds 14.99) remains the outstanding novel of 1996, elegiac, sharp and exquisitely written. I greatly enjoyed Hannibal by Ross Leckie (Abacus pounds 6.99); erudition filtered through wit, excitement, and the bustle of those elephants. Seamus Heaney's The Spirit Level (Faber pounds 7.99) forges brilliance from the most sombre experience. My favourite biography has been Julie Kavanagh's loving account of Frederick Ashton, Secret Muses (Faber pounds 25). At the end of the day Anne Fine's Diary of a Killer Cat offers deep satisfaction to children and the rest of us (Puffin pounds 3.50).


This year has thrown up many more than five excellent books, but if I have to restrict the choice I would mention Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark (Cape pounds 13.99), an extraordinary and powerful feat of nostalgia and childhood evocation; Mukiwa by Peter Godwin (Picador pounds 15.99), a fine winner of the 1996 Esquire Prize, and two other books that were also contenders which I particularly enjoyed, Dava Sobel's brilliantly original Longitude (4th Estate pounds 12) and A Hurting Business (Picador pounds 14.99), Thomas Healy's muscular study of boxing. For pure clever good fun, it was hard to beat Ben Elton's Popcorn (Simon & Schuster pounds 12.99).


My choices this year all relate to great, overland empires, which have proved much more durable - though no less violent - than maritime empires like our own. Philip Mansel's Constantinople: City of the World's Desire 1453-1924 (St Martin's Press/John Murray pounds 25) is a colourful evocation of the centre of Turkish power. Orlando Figes's masterly A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (Cape pounds 20) captures the horrors of the Bolshevik terror without romanticising the Tsarist empire it destroyed. Finally, Jonathan Spence and Annping Chin put together stunning and previously little-known images in The Chinese Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years (HarperCollins pounds 30). The sophistication but also the cheapness of life in that country are wrenchingly conveyed. One only wonders how some of the photographers survived. Or if they did.


The one book this year which seemed necessary, rather than merely good, was Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark (Cape pounds 13.99). With passionate but restrained eloquence, Deane unfolds scenes which are both unforgettable in themselves and clues to a gradually revealed mystery combining the personal and the political. Lawrence Norfolk's The Pope's Rhinoceros (Sinclair- Stevenson pounds 15.99) is a hugely enjoyable extravaganza set in 16th-century Europe, with a memorable cast of characters, a grandly operatic sense of scale, and some of the best descriptive writing you'll ever read. Barry Unsworth often sets his novels deep in the past, but After Hannibal (Hamish Hamilton pounds 16) is a sad, wise comedy of manners exploring the illusions and perils involved in buying that "little place in Umbria", one of an ever-growing number of novels set there, including of course my own ...


Tom Garvin's 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy (Gill and Macmillan pounds 14.99/ pounds 35) restored the complexity to an easily misinterpreted period: unafraid of international comparisons and theoretical insights, but firmly grounded in reality and mentality. The chapter on "Irish political culture", contrasting "republican moralism" and "nationalist pragmatism", ought to be widely read. Nicholas Robinson's Edmund Burke: A Life in Caricature (Yale pounds 30) not only proved an original analysis of Burke's reputation and career, but an absorbing treatment of the world of 18th-century political caricature. Hermione Lee's enormous, enveloping, quizzical Virginia Woolf (Chatto pounds 20) was empathetic biography at its most intense, and a tour de force of reading as well as writing.


There are twin links which bond my quintet of choices - they all set their subject in its wider political and social context, and all five brought real pleasure as pieces of writing. Ben Pimlott's The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II (HarperCollins pounds 20) will dominate the (serious) monarchy shelves for a long time; Michael Herman's Intelligence Power in Peace and War (CUP pounds 45/pounds 15.95) brought similar shafts of insight and reality to an area which, like the monarchy, has been both opaque and fantasy-prone. Peter Clarke's Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990 (Penguin pounds 25) is a fine mixture of pointillisme and grand sweep, capturing the political, the cultural and the economic flows which have scoured and swept the nation since the last turn-of-the-century. Finally, Charles Williams's Bradman: An Australian Hero (Little, Brown pounds 20) and Nicholas Whittaker's Platform Souls: The Trainspotter as Twentieth-Century Hero (Indigo pounds 6.99) brought illumination to private passions of mine.


Orlando Figes's A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (Cape pounds 20) impressed me enormously: panoramic, erudite, lucid and fair. Robyn Davidson's Desert Places (Viking pounds 18), her account of travels with nomads on the Indian sub-continent, was memorable for its rage - an emotion travellers don't talk about enough - and for the beauty of the writing: and then there was Joseph Brodsky's So Forth (Hamish Hamilton pounds 16), his final collection of poems, so that we can savour the bitterness of what we have lost with his death.


"A Sofa in the Forties" is one of the finest poems about childhood and history I have ever read. At its best, as here, Seamus Heaney's The Spirit Level (Faber pounds 7.99) is very good for the spirits. Martin Gilbert's The Boys: Triumph over Adversity (Weidenfeld & Nicolson pounds 20) is an anthology of the memories of the children who survived the concentration camps and were brought to England in 1945 (1,000 were invited, only 732 could be found). It isn't a work of art, but it's a necessary piece of history, and a reminder of the need for generous immigration policies. There's a new excitement in Drown (Faber pounds 8.99), the fierce, sharp-edged, painful stories of a young Dominican-American writer, Junot Diaz: a dazzlingly talented first book. And the paperback Oxford Book of Letters (ed Frank and Anita Kermode, OUP pounds 11.99), would make a rich mixed Christmas treat (though it gives unfairly short weight to Mansfield and Woolf), from Lady Wortley Montagu in a Turkish bath to James Thurber hilariously describing the disadvantages of short-sighted night-time driving. Excellent value.


My father died before he could complete the research for the Dumfries and Galloway volume of The Buildings of Scotland (Penguin pounds 35), so I can recommend it with a clear conscience. A catalogue raisonnee of Scottish architecture, it contains the great work of Pevsner. John Gifford has written a book of reference that meets the highest poetic and documentary standards. If you can't go there, get it, if you are going, get two. It costs a lot and saves you more. Other Scots books of the year have not always been as fine. Irvine Welsh has become something other than a writer and Ecstasy (Vintage pounds 9.99) shows it. Agnes Owens produced some good stories, People Like That (Bloomsbury pounds 13.99); Janice Galloway is her spicy self in her new stories, Where You Find it (Cape pounds 9.99). This year of the books I've reviewed I have most recalled and responded to Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf (Chatto pounds 20). It is superb. The novel I cared for most was Philip Hensher's Kitchen Venom (Hamish Hamilton pounds 16). He is a musician of malice, humour and surprising love. No finer account of the opera of Mrs Thatcher will be made. Not Entitled by Frank Kermode (HarperCollins pounds 20) is the most intelligent, affecting and oblique autobiography since Henry Green's Pack My Bag.


At a time when prizes are derided even by those who judge them, three cheers for the Booker jurists who chose Graham Swift's Last Orders (Picador pounds 15.99). After this humane and subtle story of love, friendship and last rites, South London pub talk will never sound the same again. Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark (Cape pounds 13.99) is a brilliant memoir of growing up in Northern Ireland, though surely not a novel: its power depends on your believing these are true events. The best poem I read this year was Christopher Reid's "Two Dogs on a Pub Roof", a tour de force of rhymed woofing to be found in his Expanded Universes (Faber pounds 6.99). Both J S McClelland's A History of Western Political Thought (Routledge pounds 40) and Norman Davies's Europe: A History (OUP pounds 25) have a rare breadth of thought and analytical sweep.


Peter Hennessy's Muddling Through: Power, Politics and the Quality of Government in Postwar Britain (Gollancz pounds 20) will fit neatly into the Christmas stocking of many a minister (especially the wannabe kind) and civil servant. Hennessy's roving journalistic eye over everything from Suez to Scott is always fresh and pertinent, as this collection of essays reminds us. Royalty, in particular, will learn a trick or two from his neat discussion of the prerogative power and hung Parliaments in a chapter called "The Back of an Envelope". Peter Clarke's Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990 (Penguin pounds 25) seeks to do for Britain what Eric Hobsbawm did for the world, and provides a footnote-less, upbeat survey of our island story in a book that reads like a thriller. Finally, my musical friends will be getting Nigel Douglas's The Joy of Opera (Deutsch pounds 20) - gleanings from a lifelong love affair by an admired practitioner who writes with knowledge, experience, humour and passion.


The Penguin Book of Erotic Short Stories by Women (ed Richard Glyn Jones and A Susan Williams, pounds 7.99) would make a perfect present for anybody you love, let alone fancy. I can't imagine anyone except the most committed puritan not enjoying this sparkling collection, notable for its range and diversity of writers as well as for its stress on pleasure and gratification. Just a couple of glum tales about frustration and other nasties simply point up the joys celebrated elsewhere. From a year rich in poetry I'd pick Safe as Houses by U A Fanthorpe (Peterloo pounds 6.95) and A Bowl of Warm Air by Moniza Alvi (OUP pounds 6.99), both poets unashamed of a bit of passion. I enjoyed many novels this year, among them Billy and Girl by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury pounds 13.99), a postmodern tragicomedy of childhood, original as always, her most accessible to date.


One newish book: Milan Kundera's Slowness (trs Linda Asher, Faber pounds 12.99), a midsummer night's dream of a novel that begins halfway between an essay and a memoir, and then gets funnier and more beguiling by the paragraph. One not-so-new book: Fredric Dannen's Hit Men (Vintage USA, $14).Why did a rock star, announcing his band's demise, speak recently of his relief at quitting the filthiest business in the world? This is the book with the dirty answers. One pretty old book: Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus (trs M D Herter Norton, W W Norton $7.95). An excellent parallel-text translation of Rilke's classic poem-cycle dedicated to the archetype of all poets. "Once and for all / it's Orpheus when there's singing."


If you have any nice and scientifically minded relatives, they will appreciate an explanation of how "blind", "ruthless" processes of evolution run by "selfish" genes can produce nice people like themselves after "billions of years of selection of selfishness" (in the words of the distinguished biologist G C Williams). It turns out that the problem has been overestimated. Give them Passions Within Reason, by Robert Frank, which deserves to be much better known (Norton pounds 7.95). Add Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals by Frans de Waal (Harvard pounds 16.99), or The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley (Viking pounds 20), or both. They will also need Congo Journey, by Redmond O'Hanlon (Hamish Hamilton pounds 18), for its indispensable account of sleeping with a baby gorilla. The theory of evolution has another famous problem: how can evolution - which proceeds by the selection of those best at perpetuating their genes - allow for homosexuality? Answer: it's easy. Homosexuality is as unproblematic as niceness. Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict and Other Bedroom Battles by Robin Baker (4th Estate pounds 7.99) is in gratuitously bad taste but - like Good Natured - may contain part of the explanation.


Diane Johnson's Le Divorce (Chatto pounds 14.99, available next month) is the most delectable novel I've read for a long time. It applies Henry James's theme of decoding Europe to Paris in the 1990s. Witty, informative, erotic, and craftily plotted - what a pleasure to find a serious novel with a plot as neat as the Hermes bag that gives away the heroine's secret to her French friends. I've been reading a proof, but it's out soon, and too good not to recommend now. Maxine Herg's Eileen Power: A Woman in History 1899-1940 (CUP pounds 15.95) is the first biography of the historian who influenced a generation of colleagues and pupils and died an untimely death. An extraordinary life: father imprisoned in financial scandal, scholarships to the top via Girton, chair at LSE, international reputation, friendships with H G Wells, Hugh Gaitskell, R H Tawney, etc ... She gave dances in her Bloomsbury kitchen, and insisted that kitchens mattered as much to history as palaces and parliaments. Great woman, amazing story. To Tilt at Windmills by Fred Thomas (Michigan University Press $28.95) is a rarity, the diary of an English gunner with the international Brigade in Spain. He set off from Hackney in 1936 with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, and his record of fighting experience is modestly told, humane and heroic at once. Extraordinary that it took an American publisher to see its value.


Diane Purkiss, in The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representations (Routledge pounds 14.99) looks at sorcery, magic, wicca, New Age in the light of past writings, symbols , images and beliefs: it's a spirited, searching account of fantasy's powers by a very sharp-eyed reader, and combines a strong critique with sympathetic insight. Medieval Death : Ritual and Representation by Paul Binski (British Museum pounds 25) uncovers Christian innovations (like the predilection for the macabre) with an anthropologist's freshness and wonder. Ronald Hutton's The Stations of the Sun: The Ritual Year in Britain (OUP pounds 19.99) follows in the footsteps of great shadowers of the ordinary-peculiar in lives and lore, like Iona and Peter Opie, and uncovers a mass of fascinating material about rites and festivals, showing how irrepressible such inventiveness remains in spite of globalised entertainment. In a year when my own work meant I couldn't read much fiction, Lorrie Moore's stories in Self-Help (Faber pounds 5.99) struck me as consummately perceptive and skilful. One poem specially sticks in my mind: the lyrical pursuit of the moon-in-the-water by the wonderfully loopy Wise Men of Gotham in Alice Oswald's first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (OUP pounds 6.99).