The Book of Proper Names (trans. Shaun Whiteside; Faber & Faber, £6.99) was my first taste of Amélie Nothomb's work. Nothomb can be both cruel and flamboyant and she allows the world of a story to speak for itself. The image of a girl called Plectrude, wearing a midnight-blue dress and teetering on a bridge over the Seine, is still with me. I also read Alice Munro for the first time (Runaway; Chatto & Windus) and came to realise, aside from the general consensus, that she is one of the masters. Her prose is so elegantly understated that I can only read it in absolute silence. I am still shaken from reading Ronin Ro's extremely courageous exposé of Death Row Records, Have Gun Will Travel (Quartet, £12) - it made me see Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and their ilk in a whole new light.
Disaffections (Carcanet, £14.95), the first complete collection of Pavese's poems in English, accompanied me on a trip to Andalusia and inspired a new story. Sultana's Dream and Padmarag: two feminist utopias (Penguin India, £7.99) brings together two fictional works by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932); the first a much-anthologised futuristic fantasy written in English in 1905, the second a 1924 novel which subversively interweaves elements of traditional romance - missing heroine, melancholy hero, purloined letters - with the first-person accounts of several inhabitants (Hindu, Muslim and Christian) of a women's refuge. Translator Barnita Bagchi's comprehensive introduction charts the legendary Bengali Muslim writer-reformer Begum Rokeya's life and times.
Kenneth O Morgan
France had a bad year: Non to Europe, cars ablaze from Calais to Cannes. But its past remains buoyant. Roger Pearson's enjoyable Voltaire Almighty (Bloomsbury, £18.99) celebrates an old cynic who crusaded nobly for civil liberty - and actually saw England as its model. An illiberal leader's idea of the nation, from Verdun to Vichy, is most elegantly examined in Charles Williams's Petain (Little, Brown, £30). Rod Kedward's La Vie en Bleu (Allen Lane, £30) is a marvellous exploration of French identity since 1900. Its paradox of a strong unitary state alongside a failed multiculturalism should trouble progressives everywhere.
I didn't read much written after 1900 this year but I liked The Accidental by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton) for its suppleness and its high spirits. I enjoyed John Stammers's third collection of poetry Stolen Love Behaviour (Picador, £8.99) chiefly for the extremely sympathetic couplet, "Someone did something to me once/ And I have never forgiven everybody". I loved The Power of Delight by John Bayley (Duckworth, £25), a collection of essays by my favourite literary critic, whose understanding, humour and wonderful prose always bring this reader great delight.
Diana Evans's 26A (Chatto & Windus) skilfully created a family, lyrically evoked a childhood and painfully chronicled a tragedy. Tom Hodgkinson's funny but serious polemic on the tyranny of the work ethic, the updated How To Be Idle (Penguin, £7.99), made an impassioned plea for the right "to stand and stare". Best of all was Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black (HarperPerennial), blending horror with the vulgar banality of modern England in a wonderfully subversive and humorous concoction about a professional medium playing seedy suburbs with a spiky assistant. Why Mantel has yet to win a major prize is beyond me.
I remain haunted by Prince Myshkin - saint, sinner and madman - with whom I finally caught up this summer in David Magarshack's translation of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. It's a love story that turns into one of damnation, a tale of moral failure beside which Bleak House seems frivolous. I also discovered Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma in the fine translation by Margaret Mauldon (Oxford, £8.99): a gripping adventure that subtly undermines its protagonist with glimpses of the mean, dirty reality beneath.
This year has been rich in English translations of classic Russian literature. I fell avidly upon Anthony Briggs's naturalistic rendering of Tolstoy's War and Peace (Penguin Classics): the fourth translation I have read, privileging the ignorance of the non-Russian-speaker such as myself over the cognoscenti, for each version recreates afresh Tolstoy's familiar world, with a host of tiny, nuanced differences. Robert Chandler's edition and translation of Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics, £8.99) proved a treasure-house of microcosmic art, from Pushkin's uncanny "The Queen of Spades" to Eppel's joyous "Red Caviar Sandwiches".
Three novelists grappling with history and with senses of place, and a historian digging into some very nasty places indeed. Turkey's Orhan Pamuk is, I think, the most important novelist working today. His Istanbul (trans. Maureen Freely; Faber) - part autobiography, part portrait of that astonishing city - broadens his remarkable range further. Elizabeth Kostova's vampire tale The Historian (Little, Brown, £14.99) is a piece of preposterous hokum; but an irresistibly enjoyable one. Neil Belton's first novel, A Game With Sharpened Knives (Weidenfeld, £12.99), brilliantly evokes wartime Dublin and engages with darker themes, from the experience of exile to the philosophy of physics. David Anderson's Histories of the Hanged (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20) is a stunning revelation of British official brutality in 1950s Kenya.
Stacy Schiff's Dr Franklin Goes to France (Bloomsbury, £20) is a brilliant work of narrative history. Written with great brio and immense scholarship, this account of Benjamin Franklin's voyage to France to seek moral and economic support for the American Revolution reads like a great political thriller - and it is to Schiff's credit that she not only can conjure up the urban toxicity of pre-revolutionary France, but also the intrigue and gamesmanship surrounding Franklin's sojurn. And the literary biography of the year (though first published late last year) was Blake Bailey's A Tragic Honesty (Methuen, £12.99): his remarkable account of the very rocky life of the great postwar American novelist, Richard Yates. As a study of personal self-destruction and a fight to write amid the vicissitudes of the "literary life", it makes for compelling, frequently harrowing reading - even if you're not a working novelist.
Prize for most unusual book of the year has to go to classics scholar turned cabby Roy Phippen's M25 Travelling Clockwise (Pallas Athene, £12.99), a guide to Britain's busiest motorway full of unusual facts and tempting detours. Nicola Humble's Culinary Pleasures (Faber, £16.99) is a spirited account of Britain's wayward culinary evolution from Beeton to Slater. Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99) shows the master of literary punning reference embarking on a rich new vein: police procedurals in a fantasy world of nursery rhyme characters, Greek gods and fictional crime detectives.
Hanif Kureishi's My Ear at his Heart (Faber, £7.99) was a beautiful title for a profound memoir which moved me beyond my capacity to describe thoughts and feelings. Kureishi the bestselling author lovingly and honestly wrestles with his dead father, who dreamt of being the writer he perhaps never could be. This year I wrote and performed a stage piece based on unresolved tensions between my own father and myself, which must be why this book felt so live. I also recommend Free Expression is No Offence, edited by Lisa Appignanesi for PEN (Penguin, £8.99), a collection which rages against the closing of minds and silencing of words across the globe - including the UK.
Two crime-fiction corkers, one set in the old Evil Empire, one in the new. Inspector Renko explores Chernobyl in Martin Cruz Smith's Wolves Eat Dogs (Macmillan, £17.99). Tony Hillerman, almost the last US practitioner of lean, mean writing, lines up a brilliant Navajo scorcher in Skeleton Man (Allison & Busby, £18.99). Non-fiction: Alexander Masters' Stuart: a lIfe backwards (Fourth Estate, £12.99) is a glimpse of hell on the streets. You'll never dash past a beggar again.
Pawel Huelle's novella Mercedes-Benz (Serpent's Tail) is a beautifully turned series of stops, starts, diversions and circles, set largely in the confines of a baby Fiat on the streets of Gdansk in the early 1990s. A mordantly comic epistle (addressed to the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal) on Poland's wretched past century, it's a remarkable demonstration of how to reflect on the past without being swallowed up by it: like a driver in traffic, ever alert to the chance of breaking free.
I'd like to carve the text of Stuart: a life backwards by Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate) on to the body of Richard Littlejohn and all his inhumane and punitive ilk; insist that Ghosting by Jennie Erdal (Canongate, £7.99) is tattooed on the eyelids of all the appalling men who have made such ignorant and hateful comments this year about women, work, family and pay; and suggest that anybody who likes a really beautifully put-together piece of post-gothic psychological horror should address themelves one stormy night to Sara Gran's Come Closer (Atlantic, £10.99).
The arc of terror marked all the fictions which have stayed with me over this year. Ian McEwan's Saturday (Cape) had it erupting into middle-class London life. Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown (Cape) traced it from America back to jihadist camps in Kashmir and to the Second World War. Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99) left me deeply moved at terror's impact on the life of a boy who has lost a father on 11 September. Dubravka Ugresic's The Ministry of Pain (trans. Michael Henry Heim; Saqi, £9.99) brilliantly teased out its aftermath in the lives of refugees of the Balkan civil war. The year also saw some extraordinary experiments in "life-writing": Aharon Appelfeld's The Story of a Life (trans. Aloma Halter; Hamish Hamilton, £14.99), John Berger's Here is Where We Meet (Bloomsbury, £14.99) and Juan Goytisolo's The Blind Rider (trans. Peter Bush; Serpent's Tail, £8.99) all make heroes of time and memory.
The book that afforded me deepest pleasure is Selected Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (trans. JOyce Crick; OUP, £8.99). What a joy to meet Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and Ashypet again in these sparkling new versions. Dan Jacobson's All for Love (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) is a historical novel that mocks the absurdities of the genre. Too Many Mothers (Atlantic, £16.99), a memoir of an East End childhood by the actress Roberta Taylor, is as mordantly funny as it is affecting.
When will novelists catch up with poets and take on imaginatively the tragedy of global warming and multiple extinctions? In the exuberant Gerard Woodward's We Were Pedestrians (Chatto, £9), trees "have gone berserk" with warming, power stations waft poison into hospital and cathedral: the world is failing us. As a boy discovers, when he converts the pound left by a whisky-fuelled tooth fairy into coins for the fruit machine. "I didn't win, Dad" he said, shocked/ As we walked on the beach... I didn't win."
Amélie Nothomb's Loving Sabotage (trans. Andrew Wilson; Faber, £6.99) unapologetically puts little girls at the centre of a 1970s Chinese universe. The Gang of Four and foreign diplomats circle each other; children wage war and inflict torture on one another. Similarly exhilarating is White by Marie Darrieussecq (trans. Ian Monk; Faber, £10.99) which tracks futuristic ghosts across Antarctica. Robert Gibson has written a fine, final version of his acclaimed biography of Alain-Fournier. The End of Youth (Impress Books, £30).
It has been a rather productive year for some solid, critical books on Muslims and the problem of multiculturalism. Muslim Britain: communities under pressure, edited by Tahir Abbas (Zed, £17.95), and British Muslims Between Assimilation and Segregation, edited by Mohammad Seddon et al (Islamic Foundation, £9.95), are wide-ranging anthologies with some very good contributions. There is great deal to disagree with in Tariq Madood's Multicultural Politics (Edinburgh, £16.99) but no one can deny his intellectual force. In To Heal A Fractured World (Continuum, £16.99), Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mixes stories, philosophy and theology to show Judaism's power to transform individuals and society through love and ethics. Much of what he says is equally applicable to Islam.
The books I've enjoyed most this year have all been crime fiction. The Lighthouse (Faber, £17.99) is P D James's most gripping novel for ages, combining elements of the traditional detective novel with wry observations on modern life. I also discovered David Lawrence, whose Cold Kill (Michael Joseph, £12.99) is his third novel about a female detective, Stella Mooney; I'd begun to think the serial-killer theme was almost worn out, but Lawrence's take is tense and original. I was impressed by Malicious Intent (Hodder, £6.99), a first novel by an Australian writer Kathryn Fox. The disappearance of a succession of women, all of them in trouble in some way, is the start of an investigation with baroque twists and turns, and a thrilling dénoument.
D J Taylor
Julia Darling died earlier this year at the terribly early age of 48. She left behind two more than accomplished novels, Crocodile Soup and The Taxi-Driver's Daughter but also a mass of plays written for stage and radio. These have now been collected in a single volume, Eating the Elephant and Other Plays (Northern Writers £14.99) to remind us what a dreadful loss her death is both to the literary community of north-east England and to BritLit as a whole.
I was very impressed by Taming the Beast, a debut by Australian novelist Emily Maguire (Serpent's Tail, £10.99). It initially seemed as if it was going to be a Lolita rewrite, as it concerns an affair between a 14-year-old girl and her English teacher, but the girl soon grows up, and the book is more concerned with the psychological impact of childhood sexual experiences than the taboo relationship. Without being prurient, Maguire heads into extraordinarily dark psychosexual territory, withholding any easy answers.Reuse content