Martin Amis's House of Meetings (Cape) is a frighteningly convincing account of the lives of two castaways in Stalin's Gulag archipelago. In a short span Amis has written the modern equivalent of a great 19th-century Russian novel, complete with ill-starred love, sibling rivalry, an unread letter, and a sister called Kitty. It is his best book yet. In The Road (Picador), Cormac McCarthy's dystopian version of the world is even more ferocious than Amis's. This poetic legend of a father and son travelling south through a post-apocalypse America is bleak and terrible, yet at the end there is, all unexpectedly, a faint glint of hope. In District and Circle (Faber) Seamus Heaney is as limpid and luminous and vivid as ever. The energy in these poems is unflagging, the inventiveness dazzling. A pure pleasure.
Three non-fiction works stood out for me. Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (Penguin Viking) captured that sense of historical vertigo that pervades her subject's fiction: his painful sensitivity to the presence of the past. The Sight of Death (Yale University Press), was a revelatory exercise in art criticism by T J Clark, a diary of his daily meditations in front of a pair of Poussin landscapes which made me feel that instead of rushing promiscuously around galleries, we'd be better to pursue monogamous relationships with one painting that we really loved. Red Velvet Seat (Verso) was a rich collection of writings on pre-1950s cinema by women authors, edited by Antonia Lant. Now what the world clearly needs is a collected edition of the film gossip columns of Nerina Shute.
"Ripped from oblivion" as Le Monde put it when Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française (Chatto) was first published in France in 2004. The author of this extraordinary, incomplete novel died in Auschwitz in 1942, but her depiction of France under Nazi occupation, so vivid that you feel you can smell the fear, will live on as a masterpiece. It makes a partner in tragedy for another highlight of the year, Bad Faith (Cape), Carmen Callil's fascinating investigation into the banal evil of con artist-collaborator, Louis Darquier. Gavin Stamp's The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (Profile) was a poignant reminder of an earlier war, while the concluding volume of John Haffenden's biography of William Empson, Against the Christians (Oxford) marks the culmination of a majestic achievement.
Nicola Monaghan's The Killing Jar (Chatto), partly because it is set on an estate two miles from where I've lived for the past 15 years, and partly because it is a vibrant debut which draws a potent catharsis from unpromising material. It deals with the explosion of drug use in the 1970s and 1980s and the impact on one woman enmeshed in the criminal culture of the Nottingham estate.
Barry Unsworth has a terrific ear for period history that can be twisted into a beguiling narrative. The Ruby in her Navel (Hamish Hamilton) lacks the chicanery of his precious intrigue about Ulysses and the politics of sailing on Troy, but it has a more compelling narrative, and continues to open up unlikely corners of European history with a well-told tale.
David Mitchell's fourth novel has a more linear narrative than his previous ones, yet is still a far better fourth novel than many authors ever write. Recording a year in the life of a 13-year-old Worcestershire lad, Black Swan Green (Sceptre) is poignant with recollected school day traumas and cannily observant of the coping mechanisms of kids.
I'd strongly commend Martin Amis's House of Meetings, a serious, moving account of Stalin's gulags. The new Amis is streets ahead of his previous novel, Yellow Dog, and it's such a pleasure when an author of standing who has seemed to fall permanently into writing rubbish restores himself to your regard. Second, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss (Hamish Hamilton) entirely deserved the Man Booker Prize this year. Her success filled me with smugness, as I had picked her novel out of an anonymous stack at The Economist before anyone had made a to-do over the book, and loved it.
If you want rollercoaster prose and a story that feels like it should come with a height-restriction, read Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (Viking). The House of Orphans by Helen Dunmore (Fig Tree) is a beautifully written meditation on revolution and belonging that's just as compelling as The Siege. Finally, The Gift by Lewis Hyde (Canongate) is hopeful, beautiful and profound; it will change the way you look at everything, and you'll probably end up giving a copy to everyone you know.
The Human Touch by Michael Frayn (Faber). A proper writer's writer, ever evolving, ever improving, whose work I envy and enjoy in equal measure.
The Damned United by David Peace (Faber). One of the finest books I have yet been asked to adapt. Up there with The Last King of Scotland. A privilege.
Moon Dust by Andrew Smith (Bloomsbury). Enchanting babyboomer porn.
The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud (Picador). This sees a great prose stylist tackling plot as never before and creating a truly unputdownable, atmospheric tale of friends in New York City. Big, Jamesian and delicious, it's a pleasure to read, and there's the sense that Messud can simply do anything she chooses with language.
In My Skin: A Memoir by Kate Holden (Canongate). In an over-subscribed genre, this is a hooker book to put all others in the shade. A story of middle class drug addiction and prostitution, it's exceptionally beautifully written and emotionally honest.
Hugh Trevor-Roper died in 2003, his reputation clouded by his false identification of the Hitler Diaries 20 years earlier. But Letters from Oxford ed Richard Davenport-Hines (Weidenfeld), a collection of his gossipy and wonderfully written letters to Bernard Berenson, goes a very long way to recall his controversial brilliance and wit.
John Updike's Terrorist (Hamish Hamilton) was underrated by the critics, but it's a fine and timely book by the master.
William Boyd's Restless (Bloomsbury). is a compelling, and elegant spy story, full of subtle observations about identity.
I was entranced by Jake Tilson's A Tale of 12 Kitchens (Weidenfeld) when it was published in May and I still am. There are way too many cookery books in the world, but this one is a work of art created over years by an eccentric man obsessed by food and the packaging it comes in.
Andrew Motion's account of his childhood made me cry. In the Blood (Faber) tells the heartbreaking story of his mother's death in a riding accident. Anyone planning to write a memoir in the near future should read Andrew Motion's triumphant attempt first and then give up in despair.
Ivan Vladislavic's Portrait with Keys (Portobello) is one of the most ingenious love letters - full of violence, fear, humour and cunning - ever addressed to a city. If Calvino had grown up in Johannesburg and experienced both apartheid and its aftermath, this is the kind of book he would have been proud to have written. After the infantile machismo of No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy returned to form with his bleak, post-apocalyptic masterpiece, The Road (Picador), a relentless feat of sustained imaginative immersion.
City Of Laughter by Vic Gatrell (Atlantic) draws on thousands of 18th-century satirical prints to reveal London rising above murk and misery to enjoy a good laugh. I loved this book because it reveals the roots of the dark, dry humour favoured by the nation.
Big Babies by Michael Bywater (Granta) looks at the creeping infantilisation of our culture. It raises serious social issues while cracking plenty of willy jokes.
Cinema Macabre (PS Publishing) asks everyone from Simon Pegg to Mark Gatiss to explain the haunting power of dark cinema.
Tonino Benacquista's Framed, published in English for the first time by Bitter Lemon Press. It feels like a good translation, though I suspect it might be even better in the flesh, this thin book has stayed with me all year. Billiards and modern art collide as crime meets contemporary art. I quite enjoy spotlit bricks, but I liked this more.
Kiran Desai's Man Booker winner had some wonderful passages but the intervening pages were a long trudge through the dunes. Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn (Picador) was all oasis and no sand; his antihero, growly Patrick Melrose, returned as bitter, caustic and brilliant as ever. I was riveted by Rupert Everett's revelations in Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins (Little, Brown). Shemale hookers; a fixation with Julie Andrews; affairs with Béatrice Dalle and Paula Yates; a crush on Ian McKellen; and transfixing nuggets of Hollywood gossip. Apparently both Julia Roberts and Madonna "smelt vaguely of sweat".
Carmen Callil's Bad Faith (Cape) is an ambitious, moving and expansive book, which crosses time and space and manages to find humour in misguided ambition without compromising the tragedy. In fiction, Simon Ings' The Weight of Numbers (Atlantic): a subtle, clever and imaginative novel that manages to be political without being polemical, and keep you guessing to the end.
My favourites this year were Lucy Moore's staggeringly accomplished Liberty (Harper Collins), a rivetingly vivid account of six women's lives during the French Revolution, and Jeremy Norman's deliciously indiscreet memoirs of the great and bad in 20th century gay life, No Make-Up (Elliott & Thompson), including inside scoops on Edward Heath, Michael Portillo and the miscreants of the White Mischief scandal.
Winter's Bone (Sceptre): Daniel Woodrell's tale of murder and violence in the Ozarks is superb. Quite possibly the most nerve-wracking book of 2006. I had had my fingers crossed for Kate Grenville's The Secret River (Canongate) to win the Man Booker: you have to be a master to spin a story that vast, hone it to perfection and make it all look so effortless. Perhaps I'll be better pleased at next year's Costa Book Awards, as Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother (Cape) is finally receiving the recognition it deserves by making it to the novel shortlist. You've got to love a book that features choc-ices.
If you're a fan of Safran Foer - or his missus, Nicole Krauss - get hold of Dara Horn's The World to Come (Hamish Hamilton). It does Manhattan high life, art theft, Jewishness, 1920s Russia, Vietnam and throws in a quick biography of Marc Chagall for good measure. Edward St Aubyn's Mother's Milk was one of the year's most unsettling, but perfectly formed, reads. Caroline Bird's Trouble Came to the Turnip (Carcanet) was similarly unnerving: her poem "My Love Made me A Hat" buzzed in my head for weeks. Finally, Michael Longley's Collected Poems (Cape) is a reminder of 40 years of great work.
Confessions From the Velvet Ropes: The glamorous, grueling life of Thomas Onorato, New York's top club doorman by Glenn Belverio (St Martin's Griffin), a book that is up late in New York's hip clubland so you don't have to be. Also Berlin Bromley, by Bertie Marshall (SAF) the satisfyingly insubstantial memoirs of a pretty vacant life of one of the first clubkids.
Dance and Dream (Chatto), the sardonic second instalment in the Spanish novelist Javier Marias's metaphysical spy trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, was a highlight of the year's fiction. Mother's Milk, Edward St Aubyn's self-lacerating, Tamazepam-guzzling follow-up to his Some Hope trilogy, was a small triumph, and should have won the Booker. Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box (Farrar Straus Giroux), a volume of uncollected poems, drafts and fragments by the late Elizabeth Bishop, was a long-overdue supplement to the slim Collected Poems of this extraordinary talent.
D J Taylor
The year's work in Orwell studies produced two terrific books - Peter Davison's The Lost Orwell (Timewell Press), which brings together all the material discovered since his monumental 20-volume George Orwell: The Complete Works (1998), and Orwell in Tribune (Politico), edited by the magazine's former editor Paul Anderson. My favourite homegrown novel was Will Self's The Book of Dave (Viking), a London dystopia whose roots curl all the way back to Richard Jefferies.
Andrew Motion's childhood memoir In The Blood is funny and spare and honest and clear. He captures perfectly the anxious yet optimistic incompleteness of being young. I also loved Haruki Murakami's short stories Blind Willow, Weeping Woman (Harvill Secker). They make you wonder why anyone ever bothers writing something as big and baggy as a novel. But then I read Sarah Waters' The Night Watch (Virago) and realised that, in hands like hers, the novel reigns supreme. I got to the end, cried and wanted to start all over again.
Cormac McCarthy's The Road was bleak even by his standards, but it was also beautiful and heartbreaking and, coming so soon after his last novel, No Country For Old Men, was an unexpected boon. I was also spoiled this year by two Robert Littell novels: the paperback publication of Legends (Gerald Duckworth), a tale of espionage and dissimulation and their effects on the psyche of a retired agent, and Vicious Circle (Overlook Press), in which a Rabbi is kidnapped by Palestinian operatives and finds that they have more in common than he could ever have imagined. Finally, Penguin published The Three Musketeers, one of my favourite novels, in a new translation by Richard Pevear, and bound it as a stunning jacketless hardback. I may have to read it again just to celebrate.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky was beautiful, absorbing and heartbreaking; everyone should read it but not in public, because of the weeping. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (Orion) was quite the opposite: a colossally enjoyable Brontë-esque bluestocking melodrama.
I'd like to think that there's another dimension where Lloyd Jones is growing fat on the royalties from Mr Cassini (Seren), an intelligent, witty and complex story of loneliness, loss and Wales. It's a shame books like this are destined for that corner of a bookshop called Cult (if there is a corner at all, and it doesn't just contain several yellowing copies of If on a Winter's Night a Traveller). That's also where you might be lucky enough to find Incidences (Serpent's Tail), the collection of Daniil Kharms' very short, unsettling and often darkly amusing fiction published earlier this year.
Ismail Kadaré in The Successor (Canongate, trs David Bellos) makes out of (cunningly transformed) recent history a haunting parable of power, personality-worship and conflicts of public and private interests. The Dutch novelist W F Hermans (1921-1995) put an embargo on translations of his work, now happily overcome by Ina Rilke in her graceful rendering of Beyond Sleep (Harvill Secker), a true masterpiece. Dealing with a geological expedition to northern Norway and told by a curiously jejune narrator, it has deep metaphorical resonance while never forsaking shrewd, sympathetic observation of individuals.
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. Eschewing the breathtaking cleverness of his earlier novels, this is a plain, sequential, first-person account of one year in a teenage boy's life, written with such acute perception and in such a likeable voice that you can open it on any page and be captivated immediately. My New Year's resolution is to read it again. Best teenage novel of the year is undoubtedly Linda Newberry's Set in Stone (David Fickling Books) - a brilliant slice of Victorian gothic where (unlike most genuine Victorian novels) the sinister secrets are truly sinister.
Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (Bantam) is a gloriously belligerent attack on the foaming tide of superstition that is washing over the world once again, from a great scientist who has demonstrated throughout his career the power of cool, hard reason to explain life itself. I wish I could buy a copy for every child locked into a "faith" school. I'd also like to recommend a delicious pair of small books, Christopher Hitchens' commentary on Thomas Paine (Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man'), and Francis Wheen's Marx's 'Das Kapital' (both Atlantic), and Will Self's extraordinary novel, The Book of Dave.
Two short story collections particularly impressed me: Peter Stamm's In Strange Gardens and Other Stories (Other Press) and Rachel Sherman's The First Hurt (Open City Books). Stamm is Swiss, and writes in German. His stories seem very cool, but it's the kind of cool that burns. "I'm not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," sang Britney Spears, and Rachel Sherman's stories take place on that cusp. They are exquisite.
In Cochineal Red (Weidenfeld), Hugh Thomson seeks out ruins of overgrown and thoroughly lost civilisations in misty Peru, reminding us that the world is not, after all, explored. Colin Thubron's latest, Shadow of the Silk Road (Chatto), is (for my money) his best. It plays to his strongest suit, which is the encounter with people and peoples, rather than raw nature. Finally, Charles Allen's God's Terrorists (Little, Brown), which investigates the roots of the jihad, I thought deserved more attention. It provides the sort of historical perspective our leaders sorely need.
The Devil's Doctor (Heinemann). Philip Ball's immensely readable, rewarding and enlightening account of the life and times of the Renaissance alchemist, healer and travelling iconoclast Paracelsus is an exemplar of biographical writing.
Love, Life, Goethe (Allan Lane). John Armstrong's philosophical biography of the Great Man of German literature deflates the cliched image of a stuffy, self-satisfied Olympian and gives us a living and breathing Goethe, grappling with the messy stuff of everyday life.
Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon (Cape). Not just the best book of the year, but a novel that will instantly go into the canon of great American fiction. One of the most pleasurable reading experiences I've ever had.
Best and Edwards by Gordon Burn (Faber). I have no interest in football whatsoever, so it feels strange to be making a non-fiction book about George Best one of my books of the year, but this is a brilliant book about celebrity and human achievement.
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. The true beauty of this book only reveals itself on a second reading; her three-dimensional characters and sure grasp of historical detail are truly impressive.
My favourite reads of this year were both novels: Duchess of Nothing by Heather McGowan (Faber) and The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud. McGowan is an unashamed, old-fashioned High Modernist, but if you read this dazzling story of a selfish and unloveable young woman abandoned by her lover in Rome, who is forced to look after her lover's young son, you'll wish there were more like her. I'm still in shock that Messud's imposing, intelligent, bewitching novel didn't make it to the Booker shortlist, as it's easily the best book to make a comment on our present times and turn that comment into a stinging rhapsody. I liked it so much I read it twice.
Bruce Benderson's The Romanian (Snowbooks): Benderson's painfully candid memoir reads like a modern-day De Profundis, with Wilde's Bosie replaced by an impoverished Romanian.
Rupert Everett's Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins: surprisingly well-written, self-critical autobiography from the former rent boy/actor/ friend of Madonna.
Josh Kilmer-Purcell's I Am Not Myself These Days (Bantam): memoir of an ad man turned drag queen and his crack-addicted hustler boyfriend. Surprisingly funny.
My favourites link two authors who had a riotous time during the Second World War and found success late in life. Wild Mary (Chatto), Patrick Marnham's affectionate biography of Mary Wesley, beautifully captures a writer who kept many a soldier's pecker up for the war effort. While Wesley tussled between the sheets in Cornwall, over in France Pierre Magnon was plotting with the Resistance. The Messengers of Death (Harvill Secker), the latest from the octogenarian grandpa of Gallic noir, is a sublime Provencal puzzler as rich and satisfying as a truffle omelette.
Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games (Faber) bears the same relationship to a normal novel as a three- hour Bollywood blockbuster has to an hour and a half's worth of Hollywood romcom. It's a classical Bombay underworld epic, with a policeman and a gangster as lead characters, just like the masala movies which it's inspired by. Raymond Chandler with songs.
I also enjoyed Jonathan Franzen's memoir, The Discomfort Zone (Fourth Estate), which describes a confused midwestern adolescence and New York adulthood and managed (at least temporarily) to convince me of the philosophical importance of birdwatching.
While I think Kieran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss is a worthy Man Booker winner, I was puzzled by the absence from the shortlist of Kalooki Nights (Cape) by Howard Jacobson and Peter Carey's Theft: A Love Story (Faber). Jacobson's analysis of English Jewry is upsetting to the Mancunian Jews depicted, upsetting to anti-Semites who are mercilessly excoriated, upsetting to Holocaust deniers but, to those, whether Jew or Gentile, who love rich, ribald, deadly serious Jewish humour, this is mannah from heaven. Carey too is wildly funny and serious at the same time in a ferocious, satirical take on skulduggery in the realm of modern art dealers - and forgers - and deeply tender in love.
In 1963 South Africa's apartheid regime banned David Evans from writing or speaking for publication and jailed him for five years. His fine novel from last year, A Touch of the Sun, dealt intriguingly with those harsh times, mixing sexual comedy with radical politics. Now his new book of short stories Portrait of a Playboy (Headland) examines the shift towards democracy, with tremendous clarity, humour and compassion. The Sleeping Voice by Dulce Chacon, beautifully translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (Harvill Secker) is a powerful, moving novel based on testimonies of a number of women who survived being incarcerated in prison as Republicans in 1939.
The Culture of the New Capitalism, by Richard Sennett (Yale). This expensively hardbacked essay begins to define what it means to abolish continuous personal narrative in our working lives; it made me miserable for week, angry for a month, wiser ever since.
The Secret of Scent, by Luca Turin (Faber). The most peculiar blend of quantum physics, molecular chemistry and a supersensitive personal appreciation of the olfactory aspects of history and identity; I haven't smelt the same since reading it.
Woman in Berlin (Virago) is the diary of young woman written through the occupation of Berlin by the Russians in 1945. Searingly intelligent and honest in its descriptions of the impact of war on a civilian population, it is also a dazzling tribute to the resilience of women; their compassion, their cunning and their sheer bloody-minded ability to withstand and survive.
Also a rare gem of a comic first novel. Mike Stocks' White Man Falling (Alma), set in a fast-changing contemporary India, delivers an acute, affectionately observed satire on modern family life, police corruption and the power of religion.
A C Grayling
Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Allen Lane) is required reading for a distraught world busy making bad mistakes about itself because of bad ideas. It would put matters right if everyone would bring just one brain cell to understanding its thesis. The same is promised by Mark Kurlansky's Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Modern Library), which eloquently pulls the plug on the supposed necessity of war. Mightiest of all in the waltz this year is Howard Jacobson's breath-taking, powerful, funny, excoriating Kalooki Nights, a great work by a truly brilliant novelist.
Cell by Stephen King (Hodder)
Similar in style to his tour de force The Stand. Riveting, if slightly marred by an inconsequential ending.
The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah by Karen Armstrong (Atlantic). A comprehensive and fascinating discourse on the Axial Age.
"Nothing could be more absurd than to die in a car crash," Albert Camus is supposed to have said, not long before the accident that killed him in January 1960. This year his publisher, Gallimard, is bringing out the definitive edition of his complete works in its prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. The first two volumes, covering the years 1931 to 1948 in more than 2800 closely printed pages, include many reflections on the Absurd, in the novels, The Outsider and The Plague, the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus and the play Caligula, as well as a variety of other writings, all meticulously edited and annotated. This summer, too, Penguin Classics published eight volumes, containing all Camus' major works in an attractive uniform edition, designed by Pentagram.
In November, Penguin launched "designer classics": limited editions of five classics chosen and covered by Manolo Blahnik, Sam Taylor-Wood and others. At £100 each, these were hardly classics for the masses and the rebaptising of Dostoevsky as "Fydor" on Fuel's jacket for Crime and Punishment suggested that the idea was to admire these texts from a respectful distance, not to peer closely. Who knows? The mistake may even add to the value of the item.
To order any of the titles in this feature with a 10 per cent discount and free p&p call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 and quote X10/06