Books of the Year: An all-star line-up of writers give their verdict on 2008's best

It's cold outside, so warm up with our red-hot recommendations of the year's best reads. Our critics and favourite writers pick the fiction and non-fiction that will stand the test of time

Peter Stanford

Memoir, I know, is meant to be last year's publishing obsession, but I'm still reading it and two memoirs in particular stand out for me in 2008: Patrick Maguire's My Father's Watch (Fourth Estate) and Caspar Walsh's Criminal (Headline Review). Maguire's moving account (with Carlo Gébler) of being wrongly imprisoned in 1975, as a 13-year-old, on groundless changes of running an IRA bomb factory, is profoundly shaming about the long-term damage such miscarriages of justice cause in innocent lives. Walsh's understated and quietly literary account of being caught up in his charismatic father's drug-dealing operation has a more uplifting ending.

Elsewhere Melissa Benn's One of Us (Chatto) was extraordinary, a political and emotional tour de force about the corruption of the New Labour ideal that contains the most telling account of a young man's tragic descent into mental illness I have read for a long, long time.

Jonathan Coe

Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb (Serpent's Tail) was one of the outstanding novels of the year. To describe it as the story of a marriage fracturing under the pressure of a husband's grief over his dead friend makes it sound solemn and dampening. In fact, Gottlieb writes so beautifully, and offers so many witty, clear-eyed insights into domesticity, male vanity and the nature of friendship, that you can't help but feel profoundly uplifted. A small, overlooked masterpiece.

Lynne Truss

I loved three very different memoirs published this year. All of them would make great gifts in my opinion. Janice Galloway's This is Not About Me (Granta) is an incredibly impressive feat of recollection: sharp and true and free of self-pity (and with a brilliant title). The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith (Bloomsbury) is a beautiful and moving account of a tense childhood in Newquay between the wars, full of mature compassion and the consolations of sand, wind, waves and rock pools. Lastly, Me Cheeta (Fourth Estate) is the embittered supposed memoir (anonymously ghost-written) of Tarzan's comical chimp confrère – a very clever and funny send-up of the actor memoir, which is at the same time brilliant on the beastliness of the Hollywood jungle.

Matt Thorne

I'm always on the lookout for exciting new voices in literary fiction, but maybe publishers' Logan's Run-style culling of older authors and the insane proliferation of first-time writers has reached crisis point. I can't be the only person who looks at the contemporary fiction shelves and thinks, "Who are these people?" As Warhol might have said, in the future everyone will be published for 15 minutes.

As a mild corrective, my two books of the year are by lifers. Tibor Fischer's Good to Be God (Alma) starts out as a midlife crisis and ends with hard-won optimism in the Miami sun. Julie Myerson's Out of Breath (Cape) is a beguilingly strange tale of a brother and sister befriending a gang of sinister kids, written with an empathy for adolescence perhaps unsurprising in a woman whose author photograph makes her look as though she's been forced to stand in the corner for being naughty and has decided she likes it there.

Raffaella Barker

The Believers by Zoë Heller (Fig Tree): I love this slice into a dysfunctional New York family; the awfulness of Audrey the mother, the hopelessness of Lenny, the humanity of Rosa, the revolutionary fast going off her cause, and the rest of the wonky Litvinoffs. The book is funny and clever and transports you to New York 100 per cent. I need no more.

Breakfast Lunch Tea by Rose Carrarini (Phaidon) is a ' delicious cookery book, so stylish it's breathtaking. Rose Carrarini co-founded Villandry and is now in Paris, where her simple, fresh and natural food is taking the Parisiennes by storm. Divine pictures, especially of Jacob the kitchen assistant.

Finally, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Bloomsbury) is the most delightful book. Set in Guernsey after the war and written as letters, it describes life under Nazi occupation with shocking detail and retains pellucid humour and the most intoxicating lightness of tone. A best-seller in the US, it is a book you will read and then want everyone to read too. It was my favourite this year.

DJ Taylor

Diffident, laconic but consistently acute about personalities met along the way (see in particular the account of his time working for Mrs Thatcher), Ferdinand Mount's Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes (Bloomsbury) is one of the great modern gentleman's autobiographies, on a par with such titans of the genre as Michael Holroyd's Basil Street Blues or John Gale's Clean Young Englishman.

What with the fanciful names, devil's confessions and talking cacti, Annie Proulx's work grows ever more stylised, but her new collection, Fine Just the Way It Is (Fourth Estate), contains at least three stories as good as anything she has ever written. Some similarly ground-down rural destinies could be tracked through Mary Mann's The Complete Tales of Dulditch (The Larks Press), stories set in the Norfolk of the late 19th-century agricultural depression and, at their best, the equal of Thomas Hardy.

One novel I liked was Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate) – far too long and at times a bit too self-consciously ambitious in scope, but sharp, funny and full of arresting ideas about the past three decades of English life.

Geoff Dyer

Apart from military history, I steer clear of books with murders in them: thrillers or literary novels which use violence as a premise or plot device. So what was I doing reading a book called Homicide (Canongate)? Well, I was lured in by the fact that the perp was David Simon (the creator of The Wire) and after about 20 pages of this unflinching, non-fiction account of a year embedded with Baltimore murder detectives I felt I could go on reading it forever. Which I couldn't do, obviously, because although it's long, it's not that long, so I turned to Richard Price's Lush Life (Bloomsbury). It starts with a murder and, while not as great as his earlier Clockers, was the most intensely addictive novel I read all year.

Christopher Fowler

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Atlantic), an assured first novel and Man Booker winner, was rightly acclaimed. It's about an India that can't provide sanitation or discipline, yet is filled with entrepreneurs.

In Churchill's Wizards by Nicholas Rankin (Faber), the truth is out: we won the war through bluff, trickery, turning the road-signs around, hiding large objects and dressing up. It's a true account of wartime deceit that's very English.

Don't be put off by the fact that Malcolm Gladwell is a global phenomenon. Outliers: The Story of Success (Allen Lane), an encapsulation of his populist thinking, goes only part of the way toward explaining why some people are so successful, but it's a great read.

Mark Bostridge

Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Bloomsbury), a real-life Victorian whodunnit, kept me on the edge of my seat for the duration of a five-hour train journey, while, in shorter bursts, Frances Wilson's The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber) mesmerised me with its brilliant re-reading of one half of the most famous brother and sister double act in English literary history. The breathtaking candour of Patrick French's The World Is What It Is (Picador), V S Naipaul's authorised biography, may have struck the death knell for all the flattery and deceit that are so often a product of the official Life. And I finally caught up with John Burrow's A History of Histories (Allen Lane), a wonderfully humane survey of 2,500 years of history writing.

Rachel Hore

Damon Galgut's novels merit comparison with JM Coetzee. The Imposter (Atlantic) is an intense Dostoevskian morality tale that exposes injustice and corruption at the heart of the new South Africa. Each of Jhumpa Lahiri's stories in Unaccustomed Earth (Bloomsbury) immerses the reader in an entire miniature world. Together they chronicle with delicacy and feeling the deracinated lives of the children of American-Bengali immigrants. In Dreaming Iris (Cuckoo Press), John de Falbe analyses with skill and clarity the tender story of unrequited love that lies behind a marriage.

Anita Sethi

A Mercy by Toni Morrison (Chatto). What exactly is mercy and how best ought one display compassion? A prequel to Beloved, set in the infancy of the slave trade and excavating the social and political conditions in which it flourished, the Nobel prize-winner's haunting new novel grapples with such questions while exploring what it means to be psychologically free.

In How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (Weidenfeld), Sasa Stanisic, with an original voice and ambitious style, follows the journey of the teenage protaganist, Aleksander, as he flees to Germany from war-torn Bosnia. And, as Aleksander writes a novel-within-a-novel, Stanisic tackles the complex challenges facing a storyteller.

In a year which has seen street violence escalate, Street Boys by Tim Pritchard (HarperCollins) sheds valuable insight into the lives of seven young boys who grew up on Angell Town Estate in south London, and turned to street gangs as a way of finding a sense of family and belonging. It also relates how they overcame crime to begin afresh.

Nam Le movingly grapples with the burdens of history, heritage and how to avoid being pigeonholed in the opening story of The Boat (Canongate), and subsequent stories range far in time and place.

Laurence Phelan

This year I was really fired up by three books about the firing of neurones. Douglas Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop (Basic Books), Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought (Penguin) and Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music (Atlantic) use consciousness, language and music, respectively, as windows into the workings of the mind, and each of them is subtle, full of wonder and makes the reader feel brainier. I found the biographies of two very different crazies, The Happiest Man in the World by Alec Wilkinson (Vintage), about an itinerant septuagenerian beatnik, and Mick Brown's revised Phil Spector biography Tearing Down the Wall of Sound (Bloomsbury) similarly compelling. And I was also sur- prised and delighted to find Jeanette Winterson's crystalline and fractal sci-fi novel The Stone Gods (Penguin) so smart and touching.

Charlie Lee-Potter

The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block (Faber) is a debut novel that is exhilarating to read in itself and brims with the promise of more to come. Block is a gloriously inventive writer who has created a story about the effects of Alzheimer's that fuses science and art with consummate skill.

I ended the year entranced by art and science once again, but this time in the hands of an elder statesman. In 1974, Richard Holmes' biography Shelley: The Pursuit declared that here was a writer with limitless potential; 34 years later, The Age of Wonder (Harper Press) is breathtaking in its scope, revealing how pre-Darwinian scientific discoveries affected the great Romantic writers and poets. Thrilling.

Matthew Sweet

Sick City: 2,000 Years of Life and Death in London (Wellcome Institute) is a box of deadly delights: a gazetteer, a book of essays and a cache of maps with which you can walk through a lost world of plague pits, sawbones' premises and temples of electro-pathology – and discover the grim reason for the lowness of the ceiling in the basement of Harvey Nicks. Other horrors are unearthed in Breakdowns (Viking), Exhibit A in the argument that Art Spiegelman is the world's greatest cartoonist: this is a book in which the medium used to sell lies like X-Ray specs and Sea Monkeys proves itself capable of dealing with subjects a grave and intense as suicide, the Holocaust, and how to bring up your children. Nothing hideous in John de Falbe's quiet-but-brilliant novel Dreaming Iris, overlooked – except on these pages – but well worth sticking your nose into.

Helen Simpson

This year has produced three fine fat volumes of short stories, each one packed with observational brilliance and tragicomic bravura. They are: The Collected Stories by Lorrie Moore (Faber), that princess of line-by-line pleasure; The Atmospheric Railway by Shena Mackay (Cape), with 13 new stories and 23 more from previous collections; and The Complete Short Stories by Agnes Owens (Polygon), who, now in her eighties, is living evidence that the best writers are not necessarily the best known.

Suzi Feay

The most stylishly written book of the year turned out to be Perfumes: The guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez (Profile), a sparklingly witty survey of 1,500 perfumes that contained more well-crafted sentences than 10 literary novels and more dazzling imagery than most contemporary poets can muster in their whole career. The only drawback is that now I hang around Selfridges and Liberty's perfume halls like a junkie.

Gregory Norminton

Not all authors are engaging individuals, but that cannot be said of writer and artist Alasdair Gray, the subject of Rodge Glass's Alasdair Gray: A Secretary's Biography (Bloomsbury). This intimate attempt at a Life – Glass was for several years Gray's secretary and assistant – leaves a strong and deeply engaging impression of the particularities and eccentricities of a remarkable man.

Another remarkable individual, the environmentalist and writer Roger Deakin, died much too early in 2006; happily for us, his jottings and observations of the natural and human worlds are available in the delightful Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (Hamish Hamilton) – rightly described by Deakin's friend and literary executor, Robert Macfarlane, as a 21st century Walden. Lastly, Richard Mason's The Lighted Rooms (Weidenfeld) is an ambitious and compelling novel that takes us from modern London to the cruelties of the Boer War and reveals a novelist truly growing into his craft.

Susie Boyt

Matters of life and death are examined in my two favourite books this year. The Spare Room by Helen Garner (Canongate) is an astonishing and completely original novel which presses home what caring for a dying friend would feel like and also what it might mean to be that dying friend. The New Black by Darian Leader (Hamish Hamilton) looks with grace and high intelligence at all the different ways our losses claim us.

James Urquhart

Richard Dowden's Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (Portobello) combines the edginess of good reportage with a sympathetic and intelligent analysis of the continent's future. His 30 years of sub-Saharan travel give witness to many crises and challenges, but his persuasive outlook is optimistic.

Andrew Miller is one of Britain's most graceful historical prose stylists. One Morning Like a Bird (Sceptre) delicately draws out the compromised social and cultural situation of a Japanese Francophile aesthete in 1940s Tokyo. Miller deftly captures the nuances of his subject's emotional maturation against the brittle bellicosity of mid-war Tokyo.

Drawing on personal experience, Chris Cleave's startling novel The Other Hand (Sceptre) eviscerates a solid marriage overwhelmed by a gruesome event in Nigeria. A brisk, emotionally charged plot and the vivid characters' ethical struggles make an exhilarating, disturbing read.

Salley Vickers

Home by Marilynne Robinson (Virago). Unquestionably the best novel of the year by a long chalk – indeed, one of the best ever written about the accidental trauma of family life. A remarkable, subtle, exquisitely written book.

'Dostoevsky: Language Faith and Fiction' by Rowan Williams (Continuum). A brilliantly argued and profound study of this most radical and thought-provoking of novelists.

Bidisha

It's been a great reading year. There are the two celebrated winners, Kate Summerscale with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Bloomsbury) and Rose Tremain with The Road Home (Vintage); both books are as intelligent and crisply crafted as everyone says. My secret passions, fantasy and science fiction, have yielded a lot of enjoyment too. Jaine Fenn's debut Principles of Angels (Gollancz) gave us some high-rolling renegade characters. Liz Williams wrote Winterstrike (Tor) with the usual brooding intelligence and depth. And Malorie Blackman brought out Double Cross (Doubleday), another instalment in the Noughts and Crosses series which has become a modern classic of speculative fiction.

James Hopkin

Though his compatriot Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel in 1996, there was a far more deserving Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert (who died in 1998). His Collected Works 1956-1998 (Atlantic) – witty, ironic, classical – will survive the test of time and do much to establish him as one of the 20th-century greats.

Nicola Smyth

Anne Enright's Taking Pictures (Cape) reminds you of what she does best: these short stories create perfect worlds in very few words. The poems in Jorie Graham's Sea Change (Carcanet) might look unapproachable but they are models of clarity and purity. Chris Cleave's The Other Hand made me cry more than any other book this year. Finally, Jordan Belfort's The Wolf of Wall Street (Hodder): jaw-droppingly immoral and required reading for understanding these straitened times.

Christian House

This year I found myself happily befuddled by three novels steeped in subterfuge. Fred Vargas created some inspired Seine-side sleuthing in This Night's Foul Work (Harvill Secker). Once again, Commissaire Adamsberg proved to be the Magritte of the whodunit. More melancholy than Morse, more surreal than Rebus, this flic nonchalantly skips work for a date with the first day of spring. In A Partisan's Daughter (Harvill Secker), Louis de Bernières dragged a lovely and peculiarly nostalgic romance out of London's winter of discontent. A casual encounter between a crestfallen salesman and a child of Tito's revolution creates a united bond. Or does it? And with Pandora in the Congo (Canongate), Albert Sánchez Piñol bubbled up an African brew with a dash of derring-do. Laced with a heady post-modern investigation into the dark art of telling tales it's also smoothly translated from the Catalan. Increïble!

Justin Cartwright

The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross (Fourth Estate). A wonderful and innovative way of looking at music and its relation to familiar history.

Standard Operating Procedure by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris (Picador). Sometimes history can be told in the small detail. This book provides a devastating insight not only into what happened at Abu Ghraib, but in Iraq in general, told through the testimony of some of those involved, often at a very low level, in this catastrophe.

The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant (Virago). I have been hearing good things about Linda Grant, and reading this novel provided confirmation that her writing is witty, perceptive and elegant.

Lesley McDowell

My favourite books this year just happen to be by Americans - first up is Benjamin Markovits's A Quiet Adjustment (Faber), which came out in January. It's a clever sequel to the first in his trilogy about Byron, and develops the vampiric theme he started in Imposture, with a demonic yet wholly believeable portrait of the poet. I can't wait to see what he does in the final volume, how much more uncomfortably close he can take us to the man.

I also loved Annie Proulx's short stories in Fine Just the Way it is (Fourth Estate). There's almost too much pain in the weight of people's lives as it drags them down and she excels at expressing it. A different sort of pain haunts Marilynne Robinson's heartbreaking Home, the sequel to her 2005 novel, Gilead. A gentle, unassuming, always forgiving thing, yet pain all the same, for the Boughton family. Another quietly startling masterpiece.

Paul Binding

Machine by Peter Adolphsen (Harvill Secker, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund) has at its centre a drop of oil that combusts at '7.59 pm on 23rd June 1975' in Austin, Texas, but which can be traced back to the remains of a small horse in the Early Eocene period, 54 million years ago. An imaginative project carried out with both brilliance and economy, it also does justice to major human experiences. The Twin is, astonishingly, its author, Gerbrand Bakker's first novel (Harvill Secker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer). The story of a farmer in North Holland trying to relate to the unsatisfactory son of his dead twin-brother's girl-friend, it movingly, and in a most original way, links past and present – and even points to an unexpected healing future.

I was enhearted, as well as touched, by Mark Doty's Dog Years (Cape) which gives us animals treated alongside humans with respect and love.

Susan Hill's The Beacon (Chatto & Windus) surpasses in artistry and profundity even those masterpieces its author produced in the 1970s. It portrays need, fear, bewilderment, ignorance of other people, ignorance of self, all with such compassion and insight that readers can take the remote Yorkshire farm of the title as an index for the difficulties – and compensations – of their own lives.

Benedict Allen

Survival man Bear Grylls has been criticised for fakery – somewhat unfairly, because generally TV adventure across the board is, I'm afraid, based on illusion - but his Born Survivor (Channel 4) really is a good read. The real author of Bear's latest stuff, I've now discovered, is the fine and barely acknowledged travel writer Richard Madden. Another TV tie-in, Bruce Parry's Tribe: adventures in a changing world (Penguin hardback £20) also on investigation turns out to be not all the author's work – however again at least the result is solid, absorbing stuff. But if you want to be guaranteed that your children at least get the real thing, go for Neil Oliver's Amazing Tales for Making Men out of Boys, (Michael Joseph) a retro-style compilation of smashing adventures from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Battle of Britain.

Matthew Sweet

Sick City: 2000 Years of Life and Death in London (Wellcome Institute) is a box of deadly delights: a gazetteer, a book of essays and a cache of maps with which you can walk through a lost world of plague pits, sawbones' premises and temples of electro-pathology – and discover the grim reason for the lowness of the ceiling in the basement of Harvey Nicks.

Other horrors are unearthed in Breakdowns (Viking), exhibit A in the argument that Art Spiegelman is the world's greatest cartoonist. This is a book in which the medium used to sell lies such as X-ray specs and Sea Monkeys proves itself capable of dealing with subjects as grave and intense as suicide, the Holocaust and how to bring up your children. There's nothing hideous in John de Falbe's quiet-but-brilliant novel Dreaming Iris, overlooked – except on these pages – but it's well worth sticking your nose into.

Helen Simpson

This year has produced three fine fat volumes of short stories, each one packed with observational brilliance and tragicomic bravura. They are: The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore (Faber), that princess of line-by-line pleasure; The Atmospheric Railway by Shena Mackay (Cape), with 13 new stories and 23 more from previous collections; and The Complete Short Stories by Agnes Owens (Polygon), who, now in her eighties, is living evidence that the best writers are not necessarily the best known.

Suzi Feay

The most stylishly written book of the year was Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez (Profile), a sparklingly witty survey of 1,500 fragrances from Amarige to Zen. It contains more well-crafted sentences than 10 literary novels put together and more dazzling imagery than most contemporary poets can muster intheir whole career. It's also howlingly funny. The only drawback is that now I hang around Selfridges and Liberty's perfume halls like a junkie.

Ophelia Field told the complicated story of The Kit-Kat Club (Harper Press) skilfully, interweaving biographical sketches of all the poets, pamphleteers, peers, patriots and publishers who formed this influential and gregarious Whig cabinet. I longed to take a glass of claret in their company.

From a group biography of clubbable males to a woman who towered alone: Mark Bostridge held the lamp steadily over Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend (Viking), painting a brilliantly sympathetic and detailed portrait of a misunderstood national heroine.

Gregory Norminton

Not all authors are engaging individuals, but that cannot be said of the writer and artist Alasdair Gray, the subject of Rodge Glass's Alasdair Gray: A Secretary's Biography (Bloomsbury). This intimate attempt at a Life – Glass was for several years Gray's secretary and assistant – leaves a strong and deeply engaging impression of the particularities and eccentricities of a remarkable man.

Another remarkable individual, the environmentalist and writer Roger Deakin, died much too early in 2006; happily for us, his jottings and observations of the natural and human worlds are available in the delightful Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (Hamish Hamilton) – rightly described by Deakin's friend and literary executor, Robert Macfarlane, as a 21st century Walden.

Lastly, Richard Mason's The Lighted Rooms (Weidenfeld) is an ambitious and compelling novel that takes us from modern London to the cruelties of the Boer War and reveals a novelist truly growing into his craft.

Susie Boyt

Matters of life and death are examined in my two favourite books this year. The Spare Room by Helen Garner (Canongate) is an astonishing and completely original novel which presses home what caring for a dying friend would feel like and also what it might mean to be that dying friend.

The New Black by Darian Leader (Hamish Hamilton) looks with grace and high intelligence at all the different ways our losses claim us.

On a lighter note I loved Robert Kaplow's Me and Orson Welles (Vintage), an elegant and very reviving coming-of-age story set in 1930s New York, currently being made into a film starring Zac Efron.

James Urquhart

Richard Dowden's Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (Portobello) combines the edginess of good reportage with a sympathetic and intelligent analysis of the continent's future. His 30 years of sub-Saharan travel give witness to many crises and challenges, but his persuasive outlook is optimistic.

Andrew Miller is one of Britain's most graceful historical prose stylists. One Morning Like a Bird (Sceptre) delicately draws out the compromised social and cultural situation of a Japanese Francophile aesthete in 1940s Tokyo. Miller deftly captures the nuances of his subject's emotional maturation against the brittle bellicosity of mid-war Tokyo.

Drawing on personal experience, Chris Cleave's startling novel The Other Hand (Sceptre) eviscerates a solid marriage overwhelmed by a gruesome event in Nigeria. A brisk, emotionally charged plot and the vivid characters' ethical struggles make an exhilarating, disturbing read.

Salley Vickers

Home by Marilynne Robinson (Virago): unquestionably the best novel of the year by a long chalk – indeed, one of the best ever written about the accidental trauma of family life. A remarkable, subtle, exquisitely written book. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction by Rowan Williams (Continuum) is a brilliantly argued and profound study of this most radical and thought-provoking of novelists.

Bidisha

It's been a great reading year. There are the two celebrated winners, Kate Summerscale with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Bloomsbury) and Rose Tremain with The Road Home (Vintage); both books are as intelligent and crisply crafted as everyone says. My secret passions, fantasy and science fiction, have yielded a lot of enjoyment too. Jaine Fenn's debut Principles of Angels (Gollancz) gave us some high-rolling renegade characters. Liz Williams wrote Winterstrike (Tor) with the usual brooding intelligence and depth. And Malorie Blackman brought out Double Cross (Doubleday), another instalment in the "Noughts and Crosses" series which has become a modern classic of speculative fiction.

James Hopkin

Though his compatriot Wislawa Szym-borska won the Nobel in 1996, there was a far more deserving Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert (who died in 1998). His Collected Works 1956-1998 (Atlantic) – witty, ironic, classical – will survive the test of time and do much to establish him as one of the 20th-century greats.

Nicola Smyth

Anne Enright's Taking Pictures (Cape) reminds you of what she does best: these short stories create perfect worlds in very few words. The poems in Jorie Graham's Sea Change (Carcanet) might look unapproachable but they are models of clarity and purity. Chris Cleave's }The Other Hand made me cry more than any other book this year. Finally, Jordan Belfort's The Wolf of Wall Street (Hodder): jaw-droppingly immoral and required reading for understanding these straitened times.

Christian House

This year I found myself happily befuddled by three novels steeped in subterfuge. Fred Vargas created some inspired Seine-side sleuthing in This Night's Foul Work (Harvill Secker). Once again, Commissaire Adamsberg proved to be the Magritte of the whodunnit. More melancholy than Morse, more surreal than Rebus, this flic nonchalantly skips work for a date with the first day of spring.

In A Partisan's Daughter (Harvill Secker), Louis de Bernières dragged a lovely and peculiarly nostalgic romance out of London's winter of discontent. A casual encounter between a crestfallen salesman and a child of Tito's revolution creates a united bond. Or does it? And with Pandora in the Congo (Canongate), Albert Sánchez Piñol bubbled up an African brew with a dash of derring-do. Laced with a heady post-modern investigation into the dark art of telling tales it's also smoothly translated from the Catalan. Increïble!

Justin Cartwright

The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross (Fourth Estate): a wonderful and innovative way of looking at music and its relation to familiar history.

Standard Operating Procedure by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris (Picador): sometimes history can be told in the small detail. This book provides a devastating insight not only into what happened at Abu Ghraib, but in Iraq in general, told through the testimony of some of those involved, often at a very low level, in this catastrophe.

The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant (Virago): I have been hearing good things about Linda Grant, and reading this novel provided confirmation that her writing is witty, perceptive and elegant.

Lesley McDowell

My favourite books this year just happen to be by Americans. First up is Benjamin Markovits's A Quiet Adjustment (Faber) which came out in January. It's a clever sequel to the first in his trilogy about Byron, and develops the vampiric theme he started in Imposture, with a demonic yet wholly believable portrait of the poet. I can't wait to see what he does in the final volume, how much more uncomfortably close he can take us to the man. I also loved Annie Proulx's short stories in Fine Just the Way It Is. There's almost too much pain in the weight of people's lives as it drags them down and she excels at expressing it. A different sort of pain haunts Marilynne Robinson's heartbreaking Home, the sequel to her 2005 novel, Gilead. A gentle, unassuming, always forgiving thing, yet pain all the same, for the Boughton family. Another quietly startling masterpiece.

Paul Binding

Machine by Peter Adolphsen (Harvill Secker), translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund, has at its centre a drop of oil that combusts at "7.59 pm on 23rd June 1975" in Austin, Texas, but which can be traced back to the remains of a small horse in the early Eocene period, 54 million years ago. An imaginative project carried out with both brilliance and economy, it also does justice to major human experiences. The Twin is, astonishingly, its author, Gerbrand Bakker's first novel (Harvill Secker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer). The story of a farmer in North Holland trying to relate to the unsatisfactory son of his dead twin-brother's girlfriend, it movingly, and in a most original way, links past and present – and even points to an unexpected healing future.

I was enhearted, as well as touched, by Mark Doty's Dog Years (Cape) which gives us animals treated alongside humans with respect and love.

Susan Hill's The Beacon (Chatto) surpasses in artistry and profundity even those masterpieces its author produced in the 1970s. It portrays need, fear, bewilderment, ignorance of other people, ignorance of self, all with such compassion and insight that readers can take the remote Yorkshire farm of the title as an index for the difficulties – and compensations – of their own lives.

Benedict Allen

Survival man Bear Grylls (above) has been criticised for fakery – somewhat unfairly, because generally TV adventure across the board is, I'm afraid, based on illusion. In the same vein, although his bestseller Born Survivor (Channel 4) is a really good read, it turns out to have been written with the help of a ghost-writer. The same goes for Bear's cracking children's novel Mission Survival: Gold of the Gods (Red Fox) and the stirring Great Outdoor Adventures: An Extreme Guide to the Best Outdoor Pursuits (Channel 4 ). All rousing, enjoyable books, it's just that the adventurer didn't write them entirely himself.

So if you want to be guaranteed that your children at least get the real thing, I'd say go for Neil Oliver's Amazing Tales for Making Men out of Boys (Michael Joseph), a retro-style compilation of smashing adventures from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Battle of Britain.

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    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable