Books of the Year

Will a mighty Mancunian ping-pong ace pip a disgraced South African don and a starry-eyed but drug-addled teenager as the favourite fictional hero of 1999? And why is Karl Marx even more popular than Harry Potter? Independent contributors, with other leading writers, choose their books of the year. On the very brink of Y2K, we also asked for nominations for the Book of the Century
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Geoff Dyer Novelist and critic The Booker judges got it absolutely right: J M Coetzee's Disgrace (Secker) dwarfed all other novels published this year (especially those three times its size). In a similar way, James Wood's book of essays, The Broken Estate (Cape) towered above most of what passes for criticism. Wood is reminiscent of Susan Sontag in her pomp (as Ron Atkinson would say) in that we are witness to a sensibility that has devoted itself entirely to criticism - often pursued casually as a sideline - as a vocation. That one dissents, inevitably, from some of his judgments does nothing to diminish admiration for the passionately sustained vigour of his writing. I was also impressed, but for very different reasons, by My War Gone By, I Miss It So (Doubleday), Antony Loyd's devastating account of his experience as a war junkie in Bosnia. Book of the Century : Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Geoff Dyer Novelist and critic The Booker judges got it absolutely right: J M Coetzee's Disgrace (Secker) dwarfed all other novels published this year (especially those three times its size). In a similar way, James Wood's book of essays, The Broken Estate (Cape) towered above most of what passes for criticism. Wood is reminiscent of Susan Sontag in her pomp (as Ron Atkinson would say) in that we are witness to a sensibility that has devoted itself entirely to criticism - often pursued casually as a sideline - as a vocation. That one dissents, inevitably, from some of his judgments does nothing to diminish admiration for the passionately sustained vigour of his writing. I was also impressed, but for very different reasons, by My War Gone By, I Miss It So (Doubleday), Antony Loyd's devastating account of his experience as a war junkie in Bosnia. Book of the Century : Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Felipe Fernández-Armesto Historian Two 20th-century works changed my life: Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China and Walter Guthrie's History of Greek Philosophy. But neither could rival a Tintin book for global impact. The strip-illustrated novel is the only new, 20th-century genre and the only kind of book with universal reach. Hergé was its master. Bores drone on about how he was a Fascist but the reverse is true: in all his work, he championed the weak against the strong. Le Lotus Bleu (Methuen) shows him at his best - sly, disingenuous characterisation, acuity of observation, unerring pace, oodles of mock erudition. The revelation of 1999 for me was boldly published, beautifully designed, dazzlingly written. The stories in Good Morning, Mrs Craven (Persephone Books) first appeared in the New Yorker in wartime. Mollie Panter-Downes is as profound as Katherine Mansfield, restrained as Jane Austen, sharp as Dorothy Parker. BoC: Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China

Edna O'Brien Novelist Colette is one of the few women writers to have entered the collective consciousness. We know of her marriage to a Svengali, her adventurousness, her bisexuality and her piquant prose. Now, with this wonderful new biography Sins of the Flesh by Judith Thurman (Bloomsbury) there is more to know and ponder about this remarkable artist and daunting women. The Letters of J B Yeats edited by Joseph Hone (Faber) are the fruits of a lively and discursive mind. In his perceptive introduction, John McGahern notes that, though John B Yeats failed as an artist, his genius imparted itself to his sons William and Jack. Another Irish genius with the gift for self destruction was Flann O'Brien and now his newspaper articles, written under the pseudonym of Myles na gCopaleen have been edited by John Wyse Jackson (Duckworth). A feast of a book for eating or, more appropriately, for drinking. BoC: James Joyce, Ulysses

John Gribbin Science writer and biographer The new book I most enjoyed this year was George Dyson's Darwin Among the Machines (Penguin), for its mixture of biography, informed speculation, and hard science. The most important book I read was Jeremy Leggatt's The Carbon War (Viking), which attracted scarcely a ripple of attention in these days of environmental concern fatigue, but which is both entertaining and informative, and somehow benefits as a work of literature from the Pollyanna-ish optimism of the ending. The best new book that I read, though, was Julian Barbour's The End of Time (Weidenfeld), which made my head hurt at first but is well worth persevering with, and will leave you, among other things, pondering on the pointlessness of making lists of the "best of" of the year, the century or the millennium. BoC: John Irving, The Cider House Rules

Lisa Appignanesi Novelist and critic I loved Salman's Rushdie's The Ground Beneath her Feet (Cape) for the sheer exuberance of its invention and the grand scale of its human comedy. Bold, and utterly engrossing, it probes, amongst much else, our fin de siÿcle love affair with image and celebrity. Darwin's Worms (Faber), Adam Phillips's meditation on mortality, brilliantly counterpoints Freud and Darwin to take on the big questions - loss, suffering, death - and teases out matter for celebration from the bitter fact of our transience. Grace Paley's collection of essays, Just as I Thought (Virago), is an endearing self-portrait of the quintessential New York storyteller, whose activism is a history in miniature of the just causes of three decades. My favourite gritty page-turner was Ian Rankin's Dead Souls (Orion). BoC: Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Charles Shaar Murray Music writer and biographer One major problem with trying to finance a hardback sensibility on a paperback budget is that your discovery curve always lags a year or more behind. The most exhilarating moments of my chronologically disadvantaged year arrived via the recent past. We've all lost count of the pretenders to the title of Great Modern American Novel, but Don DeLillo's Underworld (Picador) is the revelatory real McCoy. Brits with a distaste for sport, and especially American sport, may find the fact that its gargantuan first chapter is set at a baseball game may present an initial challenge, but it is an astonishing ride through the American 20th century. It does both the large and the small things with passion, finesse and sheer vision. Leaving Planet Fiction, we find an embarrassment of riches in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Bloomsbury), Peter Biskind's jaw-dropping account of Hollywood's Nutso Years. It's the perfect combination of razor-edged cultural history and poisoned-bonbon Higher Gossip: irresistible for the best and worst reasons. BoC: George Orwell, Animal Farm

Harold Pinter Playwright, director, actor I have said about W S Graham's poetry: "His song is unique and his work an inspiration". The same applies to his brilliant collection of letters, The Nightfisherman (edited by Michael and Margaret Snow; Carcanet Press). The subject is poetry. W S Graham drank and ate poetry every day of his life. These letters show an intelligence and sensibility ravished by language and conundrums of language. An explorer whose journey never ends. BoC: James Joyce, Ulysses

Sean French Biographer and novelist I once tried to indicate the hopelessness of a character in one of my novels by having him contemplate writing a biography of Karl Marx. The point of this has now been thoroughly spoiled by Francis Wheen's Karl Marx (Fourth Estate ), which proved to be fascinating, funny, moving and - most startling of all - timely. His account of Das Kapital as a phantasmagoric Victorian novel is so compelling that I've started to read it. John Haigh's Taking Chances: Winning with Probability (Oxford University Press) outlines the mathematics behind a variety of games from blackjack to Monopoly - even cricket and squash. A book that will not only exercise your mind but quickly pay for itself: if you read chapter two with due attention, you will never buy a lottery ticket again. BoC: Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Tariq Ali Editor, historian and novelist 1/ Farewell To An Idea: episodes from a history of modernism by T J Clark (Yale University Press): my favourite book of the year with incredible illustrations and a brilliant analysis of 20th-century art. 2/ Night and Horses of the Desert: an anthology of classical Arab literature by Robert Irwin (Allen Lane): satire, erotic poetry by Arab women and other joys await the reader in this brilliantly recreated medieval world. 3/ The Road to Terror by J Arch Getty and Oleg V Naumov (Yale): the first account of top-secret Soviet documents which reveal how Stalin carried out his purges. 4/ Machiavelli and Us by Louis Althusser (Verso): a brilliant introduction to Machiavelli by one of France's leading modern philosophers. 5/ The Rites of Men by Varda Burstyn (Univ. of Toronto Press): a devastating feminist critique of contemporary sport. 6/ For And Against Method by Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend (Univ. of Chicago Press): a stimulating exchange of letters between two philosophical entertainers. 7/ The Global Gamble: Washington's Faustian bid for world dominance by Peter Gowan (Verso): it coincided with the Balkan war and has deservedly acquired a cult following. 8/ King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild (Macmillan): the story of an African holocaust which marked the Congo for a century. 9/ The Man In Flames by Serge Filippini (Dedalus): an engaging historical novel on the life of Giordano Bruno, the heretic burnt in Rome 400 years ago. 10/ Out of Place: a memoir by Edward W Said (Granta): a trenchant self-analysis by the leading Palestinian critic that reads like a novel. BoC: Vassily Grossman, Life and Fate

Tom Paulin Poet and critic As an undergraduate, I came to admire those great Anglo-Saxon poems The Wanderer and The Seafarer, but it wasn't until I read Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf (Faber) that I began to engage with this heroic and Christian epic. Heaney's translation is very subtle: he keeps the alliterative metre but he modulates its structure in a manner that uplifts and enhances its rhythm. This is a hymn to the deep North Sea energies of the English language.

Peter Parker Biographer and criticA M Homes's last novel was splashed all over the papers because it dealt with paedophilia, but Music for Torching (Doubleday), a far superior and more genuinely disturbing dissection of American family life, failed to attract the attention it deserved. Homes's matter-of-fact tone increases both the horror and the hilarity of this dark tale: never have ordinary lives spiralled more enjoyably and frighteningly out of control. The year's most impressive debut was Ann Harries's Manly Pursuits (Bloomsbury), a clever, witty and oddly moving novel about masculinity and imperialism. Jane Brown's idiosyncratic history of gardening, The Pursuit of Paradise (HarperCollins), was the most enjoyable work of non-fiction I read, Edward Mendelson's authoritative Later Auden the most rewarding. BoC: The Complete Ronald Firbank

Liz Jensen Novelist Close Range, (Fourth Estate), Annie Proulx's gritty, ugly-beautiful short-story collection is high on my list, along with Deborah Moggach's sublimely human Tulip Fever (Heinemann) and Sue Miller's While I Was Gone (Bloomsbury), a clear-eyed meditation on domestic love and a compulsive, excitingly, uncomfortable read. My very favourite work of fiction this year is Daren King's Boxy an Star (Abacus). It's a simple absurdist story of a failed drug delivery and its repercussions narrated by the drug-addled teenager, Bole. It's Bole's voice that lifts the book into greatness: his daringly, deliciously dumb idiolect must have had an almost viral effect on me, because I found myself dreaming about him, and he's still haunting me. Perhaps I'm going mad. Or perhaps this original, poignant, funny book will become a classic. For my sake and Daren King's, I hope the latter. BoC: Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast

Philip Kerr Novelist Howard Jacobson's The Mighty Walzer (Cape) was certainly the funniest novel I read in 1999; he is also to be congratulated for having invented a new literary genre: Magic Semitism. The best first novel was Jake Arnott's splendid re-creation of Sixties criminal London, The Long Firm (Sceptre). For once the only disgrace about this year's Booker Prize choice was that the winner did not turn up to collect it; J M Coetzee's novel Disgrace (Secker) is hugely readable and highly recommended. I also very much enjoyed Francis Wheen's boils-and-all biography of Karl Marx (Fourth Estate) and I shall never again stagger out of the Groucho and walk up Dean Street without glancing up at the flat where he used to live. My son, William, wants me to say that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J K Rowling (Bloomsbury) is the best book he has ever read. BoC: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Frank McLynn Historian and biographer Most profound biography: Hitler's Pope: the secret history Of Pius XII by John Cornwell (Viking). Most scholarly biography: Salisbury: Victorian Titan by Andrew Roberts (Weidenfeld). Most original biography: Karl Marx by Francis Wheen (Fourth Estate). Best combination of biography and social history: Blood And Fire: William And Catherine Booth And their Salvation Army by Roy Hattersley (Little, Brown). Mainstream novel: The Soldier's Return by Melvyn Bragg (Sceptre). Oddball novel: The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson (Cape). Travel: In The Shadow Of Kilimanjaro by Rick Ridgeway (Bloomsbury). Eye-opener: The National Wealth by Dominic Hobson (HarperCollins). Best reissue: The Wreck Of The Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase (Headline). BoC: Franz Kafka, The Trial

D J Taylor Novelist, biographer and critic Two novels I greatly enjoyed were Carol Birch's Come Back, Paddy Riley (Virago) and Robert Edric's The Sword Cabinet (Anchor). Birch's novel, in particular, was a searing variant on what by now is her settled theme: the ability of a Bohemian past to shatter the middle-aged, middle-class present. Thirty years have passed since George Macdonald Fraser began his epic reinvention of Harry Paget Flashman, the anti-hero of Tom Brown's Schooldays. Flashman and the Tiger (HarperCollins) was as brilliantly done as ever. About the same distance in time separates the first appearance of Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes (reissued by Yellow Jersey) in which two great US obsessions - American football and drunkenness - chaotically contend. BoC: Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy

Shena Mackay Novelist I can't do this without reference to the Booker Prize, nor would I exclude Disgrace by J M Coetzee (Secker), Michael Frayn's Headlong (Faber), Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting (Chatto), Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love (Bloomsbury), Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship (Picador) or Andrew O'Hagan's Our Fathers (Faber). Among this year's many excellent novels, Elizabeth Jane Howard's Falling (Macmillan) is a compelling study of psychopathy in Middle England while Mirage (Serendip) by Bandula Chandraratna, set in Saudi Arabian poverty, shows simple goodness betrayed and has a shocking ending. I'm enjoying D J Taylor's Thackeray (Chatto & Windus) and have read three fine volumes of stories: This Other Salt by Aamer Hussein (Saqi Books), False Pretences, a first collection by the novelist Lee Langley (Vintage) and Grace Paley's Collected Stories (Virago). BoC: Martin Seymour-Smith, Guide To Modern World Literature

Penelope Lively Novelist Jane Brown's The Pursuit Of Paradise (HarperCollins) is a marvellously comprehensive account of how garden fashion has evolved and what drives gardening taste - the sociology of gardening, as it were. Handsomely illustrated and scholarly but written with enjoyably idiosyncratic verve and robust opinions. The Potato (Macmillan) is a chunky history of the spud. Larry Zuckerman charts the way in which a vegetable can meddle with history, after this scion of the nightshade family crossed the Atlantic and became inextricably entwined with European peasantry. Maverick and illuminating. On the fiction front, Michael Frayn's Headlong (Faber) was the most satisfying new novel I've read in quite a while: a fast-moving, entertaining narrative given ballast by a consideration of the nature of art, as cleverly paced as fine drama. BoC: William Golding, The Inheritors

Paul Bailey Novelist Mark Frankland belongs to that depleted band of journalists who believe in telling interesting stories rather than airing opinions. His memoir Child of My Time (Chatto) is deeply affecting for being so genuinely modest and thoughtful. I enjoyed Ian Buruma's witty study of anglomania in Europe, Voltaire's Coconuts (Weidenfeld), not least for his account of working with the Fair-Isled yobs who run the Spectator. I enjoyed three novels: Bohumil Hrabel's wonderful Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Harvill); A Good Place to Die by James Buchan (Harvill), who writes fiction that merits re-reading, and Disgrace by J M Coetzee (Secker), which is a masterpiece. BoC: Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Beryl Bainbridge Novelist God's Funeral by A N Wilson (Murray): a glittering exposition of how scientific discoveries in the 19th century swept away the faith of eminent Victorians. Sad thing is that 70 per cent of us alive today believe God is buried, but don't understand a blind thing about the science that shovelled Him under. Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd (Viking): a book which applies a biographer's skills to his own life, without ever being self-indulgent. Part detective story, part the stuff of tragedy of a specifically English kind. We must all keep a straight bat. Time by Alexander Waugh (Headline). An exhilarating account of how men invented minutes and seconds, and then spent the next few millennia trying to measure and understand them. The Soldier's Return by Melvyn Bragg (Sceptre): an unsentimental, truthful and wonderful novel about a small boy, his mother and their reaction to the return of the man of the house. The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter (Macmillan): Death of Morse. What construction! What skill! Why isn't this author ever on the Booker shortlist? BoC: André Schwarz-Bart, The Last Of The Just

Shusha Guppy Editor and writer Vikram Seth's An Equal Music (Phoenix House): one of the best novels on the joys and tribulations of music-making, itself constructed like a piece of chamber music. Baqer Moin's Khomeini (I B Tauris), the first study in English of the life and doctrine of the charismatic Ayatollah who brought about the 1979 revolution in Iran. Maria Fairweather's The Pilgrim Princess (Constable), a delightful historical biography that reads like a 19th-century Russian novel. Seamus Heaney's wonderful translation of Beowulf (Faber), perfect for a newcomer. Charles Spencer's The Spencer Family (Viking): the riveting story of one of England's oldest families, which puts Princess Diana in context. BoC: Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Jan Morris Travel writer and biographer Four books, each in a different genre, which I particularly enjoyed in 1999: Peter Lord's beautiful Industrial Society (Univ. of Wales Press) is the first volume of a projected trilogy which brilliantly reassesses the place of the visual arts in Welsh culture. Andrew Taylor's God's Fugitive (HarperCollins) is surely the definitive biography of that half-forgotten literary genius, Charles Doughty. Zarafa by Michael Allin (Headline) delightfully tells the story of the giraffe that Muhammad Ali of Egypt presented to the King of France, and of her epic walk from Marseilles to Paris. The Leper's Companions (Cape) is a haunting and mystical fantasy by that most bewitching of novelists, Julia Blackburn. BoC: Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Miranda Seymour Biographer and novelist Exhibition catalogues ought to get into the annual round-ups more often than they do. My favourite this year was for the Rembrandt Self-Portraits exhibition at the National Gallery (Yale), a collection of essays accompanied by spectacular colour-plates. Anna Pavord's The Tulip (Bloomsbury) was a superb study in the madness of collectors; I also enjoyed Michael Dash's Tulipomania (Gollancz), an enthusiastic historian's view of the same subject, with lots of colourful detail. Humphry Repton: Landscape Gardening and the geography of Georgian England (Yale) by Stephen Daniels is a stimulating and beautiful study of the master of the cultivated landscape. Matt Ridley's Genome (Fourth Estate) is as elegant, as unpatronising and lucid as a layman could desire. Blessed are the users of plain language, for they shall be read. BoC: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That

J G Ballard Novelist Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II by John Dower (Allen Lane) is a superb account of how Japan rose from the ashes of war and reinvented itself as a peace-loving democracy. But is it all an illusion? The Darwin Wars by Andrew Brown (Simon & Schuster) is a ring-side commentary on the ferocious battle between the supporters of Richard Dawkins and Stephen J Gould, fighting toe-to-toe for the supreme crown of evolutionary biology. More vicious than anything in Walking with Dinosaurs. Hitchcock's Secret Notebooks by Dan Auiler (Bloomsbury): sit beside the great director as he plans every detail. The real Hitchcock, at his most thoughtful and meticulous. BoC: Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

Jane Jakeman Crime writer and art historian Robert DeMaria Jr's Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press) has a unique theme: the social and psychological implications of the act of private reading with a wonderful picture of Johnson almost physically devouring the books he read. The only book to discuss modes of reading - with utter concentration, with cursory glances, for erotic stimulation. Best crime fiction was Michael Dibdin's Blood Rain (Faber). Set in Sicily, it brought home the hypocritical obscenities of factional violence with a haunting force. Best crime fiction by a new writer was Barbara Nadel's Belshazzar's Daughter (Headline). Set in Istanbul, with a battered, cynical and credible Turkish cop, and a great blooming baroque plot (ditto talent). BoC: James Joyce, Ulysses

Ahdaf Soueif Novelist Edward Said's Out of Place (Granta), a delicate and candid memoir by a very private man, moved me enormously. Written in "counterpoint" to his illness (leukaemia) at times when he was recovering from chemotherapy, it tells of the childhood of a Palestinian boy in a wealthy English-speaking family in Cairo and then his sudden removal to the US. Its importance may be measured by the ferocity of the public attempt (which preceded and accompanied publication) to discredit him as an authentic Palestinian voice. Charlotte Mew's Selected Poems (Carcanet) was a great discovery. Grappling with the great questions of the beginning of this century, her voice is intriguingly contemporary. Some of her lines will haunt me forever. Radwa Ashur's Atyaf (Ghosts/Spirits/Rainbows) is an impressive experiment in narrative form. Ashur braids together scenes from her own autobiography with scenes from an invented life; the life of "Shagar;" a woman she has invented to help her carry the burden of her own life. BoC: Katherine Mansfield, Collected Short Stories

Patricia Craig Editor and biographer Seamus Heaney's Beowulf (Faber) is undoubtedly one of the most important publications of the year: a vigorous new translation of an old classic. Just as striking and idiosyncratic, though, are two books by Heaney's fellow Northern Irishman Ciaran Carson: the bedazzling sonnet sequence The Twelfth of Never, (Picador) a heady assembly of images both Irish and otherwise; and the prose work Fishing for Amber, (Granta), a labyrinthine concoction of stories and meditations. Among some good detective novels, one is outstanding: Val McDermid's A Place of Execution (HarperCollins) a "missing person" investigation both resonant and riveting. I hesitate to mention the ubiquitous Harry Potter, but it does sometimes happen that a children's book transcends all barriers of age, taste or prejudice. J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Bloomsbury) is one of these. BoC: Sorley MacLean, From Wood to Ridge: Collected Poems

John Campbell Historian and biographer Who would have thought that dull John Major, the grey man of British politics, would have written the best prime ministerial memoir - discounting Churchill - since the genre began? In parliament, on television or even on his soap box, he invested the arch phraseology of Mr Pooter with the eloquence of a speak- your-weight machine. Yet on the printed page he turns out (with apparently less help than most political autobiographers) to be a deft, wry and graceful writer, with a touching modesty and impressive honesty. John Major: The Autobiography (HarperCollins) is a revelation which leaves you wishing he had felt freer in office. Francis Wheen's Karl Marx (Fourth Estate) is scarcely less surprising. Stripping away both the piety and the demonology, Wheen's book is fresh. funny, vivid and admirably short, revealing the contradictory man behind the forbiddingly bearded mask. BoC: Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown tetralogy

Mary Flanagan Novelist The year's outstanding novel was David Plante's The Age or Terror (St Martin's Press, New York). Set in the ruins of modern Russia, this unforgettable work is a harrowing assessment of what's left of our souls in the late 20th century. Find it by any means. The Catastrophist (Review) is another intimate drama played on a vast stage. In Ronan Bennett's novel of love and revolution, the personal and political are fatally conjoined. Erotic and suspenseful with an eidetic portrayal of Patrice Lumumba. Daren King's maverick Boxy an Star (Abacus) is tender, frisky and innovative. Story collections from Shena Mackay and Annie Proulx are distinguished by empathy, wit and intelligence. Proulx's Close Range (Fourth Estate) offers enthralling sagas of desolation in the American West, while in The World's Smallest Unicorn (Cape) Mackay's luminous writing conjures a weird poetry from English encounters. BoC: Primo Levi, If This Is A Man & The Truce

Carol Birch Novelist It's been a good year for Canongate's Rebel Inc imprint. As well as being responsible for such shamefully overdue reprints as Nelson Algren's A Walk on The Wild Side and Knut Hamsun's Hunger, they have also given us two very good first novels. Scar Culture by Toni Davidson and Born Free by Laura Hird paint apocalyptic pictures of a desperately fragmenting society. Both are flawed, both impress with their energy and independence. Jim Crace's Being Dead (Viking) was a fascinating momento mori for our times, and Melvyn Bragg's loving evocation of Wigton in the Forties grounded a perceptive study of marriage, The Soldier's Return (Sceptre). I also enjoyed Marie Darrieusecq's existential oddity, My Phantom Husband (Faber), and two good short story collections: Some Rain Must Fall by Michel Faber (Canongate), and Other Stories by Ali Smith (Granta). BoC: James Joyce, Ulysses

Aamer Hussein Writer and critic Shena Mackay's luminous stories are never sketchy, rushed or too neatly turned. The World's Smallest Unicorn (Cape) exquisitely balances brief, witty tales with longer stories that have the depth and intensity of compressed novels. Gina Berriault's prize-winning retrospective collection Women in their Beds (Counterpoint) contains precise, lyrical tales that delicately interweave the intimate with the political. Impressive new talents on display in Laurence Chua's abrasively poetic Gold by the Inch (Grove Press); David Treuer's brutal, compelling The Hiawatha (Granta); and Andrew O'Hagan's moving Our Fathers (Faber). In translation, from Russian and Arabic respectively, Irina Ratushinskaya's Fictions and Lies (Murray) and Ghazi Algosaibi's Seven (Saqi), superior thrillers with a satirical edge. My favourite postwar writers - Indonesia's Pramoedya Ananta Toer whose tetralogy beginning with This Earth Of Mankind (Penguin) is one of the great literary achievements of the last half century, and India's Qurratulain Hyder - are increasingly available in translation. The latter's seminal River of Fire is forthcoming (from New Directions). BoC: Cesare Pavese,The Moon and the Bonfire

Boyd Tonkin Literary editor, The Independent Most of my reading year passed, unavoidably, under the volcano of Booker Prize submissions. But it is still burning enthusiasm, not corporate duty, that makes me recommend J M Coetzee's Disgrace (Secker) as a masterpiece and the rest of our shortlist - Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting (Chatto); Michael Frayn's Headlong (Faber); Andrew O'Hagan's Our Fathers (Faber); Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love (Bloomsbury) and Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship (Picador) - as a tremendous panorama of English-language fiction. Among other first-rate novels, it might be fairest to single out two dazzling young newcomers - Daren King for Boxy an Star (Abacus); David Mitchell for Ghostwritten (Sceptre) - and two fine self-published works: Bandula Chandraratna's Mirage (Serendip); Timothy Mo's Renegade or Halo 2 (Paddleless). Away from fiction, I loved the poetry of Seamus Heaney's Beowulf (Faber), Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife (Picador), Ciaran Carson's The Twelfth of Never (Picador). Away from literature, Gary Giddins's Visions of Jazz: the first century (Oxford) contains some of the best writing about music I have read. BoC: Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

Chris Patten European Commissioner Timothy Garton Ash has more interesting things to say about the past, present and future of our continent than most other historians and journalists. History of the Present (Allen Lane) is a collection of his dispatches, essays and sketches; they are perceptive, beautifully written and always reflect a well-honed sense of morality. In The Search for the Panchen Lama (Viking) Isabel Hilton tells a gripping story with great dash. Like Garton Ash, she dwells on the frontiers between historical scholarship and sharp-eyed journalism. I shall give everyone, for Christmas, Simon Jenkins's England's Thousand Best Churches (Allen Lane) and I expect they will all give it to me. BoC: Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies

Terry Eagleton Professor of English, Oxford Philip Short's Mao (Hodder & Stoughton) is a beautifully written, grippingly readable biography of the brilliant military strategist who was probably responsible for more deaths this century than anyone else. It is a formidable piece of research, which wears its learning so lightly you can hardly feel it. BoC: Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Emma Hagestadt Critic Paperback fiction of the navelgazing variety was in plentiful supply this year - perfect entertainment if you like reading about people like yourself, only more glamorous. Divorced parents scored in Hanif Kureishi's collection Midnight All Day (Faber); columnist Kathryn Flett shared bad honeymoon stories in her memoirs of a marriage, The Heart-Shaped Bullet (Picador); and New Yorker Melissa Bank debunked the dating game in The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing (Viking). Barbara Trapido out trumped everyone with The Travelling Hornplayer (Penguin), a craftily orchestrated tale of bad mothers, good stepmothers and erring partners. BoC: Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs

Gordon Burn Novelist and biographer Sudden Times by Dermot Healy (Harvill) and Howard Jacobson's The Mighty Walzer (Cape) both operate in that space between art and life where so much current writing seems to be flourishing. Both take what might be thought of as ready-made life and turn it into something that seems at the same time inevitable and amazing. In his novel, Healy writes in a marvellous elegiac way about the scruffy corners many novelists don't even notice. Set in the world of invisible labouring men from Mayo and Wexford, he describes a side of common London life that has never been written about in this way before. Jacobson's ping-pong Roth-athon, is, as the cover declares it, his masterpiece; one to be added to the roll of dishonour of great British books that were never Bookered. A Crackup At the Race Riots by Harmony Korine (Faber) was memorable for its fresh, rough (some might say, barmy) aesthetic. BoC: V S Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival

Valentine Cunningham Professor of English, Oxford Howard Jacobson's The Mighty Walzer (Cape), his mouthy spiel about a Jacobson-soundalike growing up table-tennis-playing and Jewish in Manchester, romped home: as my winning novel. Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life (Oxford), a wonderfully sage account of the playwright Shagspere (or is it Shagbag, or Shakerags?) was the liveliest biography of a big literary name. Most attractive as well as rewarding Big Fat Art Book was Lionel Lambourne's lush Victorian Painting (Phaidon): nice to have the usual categories reinforced by upcoming new ones such as fairy, fallen women, colonialism and transatlantic crossovers. God's Funeral (Murray) - slyest of looks at Victorian Doubt by A N Wilson, the wittiest God-botherer around (a sort of skinny, freethinking Chesterton) - was the most biddable volume of literary-social history to come my way. BoC: James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Ben Pimlott Historian and biographer At one fin de siÿcle, it is important to remember what happened at the last. Two enterprising history books show both how much has changed, and how little has. Jonathan Schneer, in London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis (Yale), vividly displays the inhabitants and leaders of the capital of the world's greatest empire at the apogee of its selfregarding glory, when the imperial drumbeat dominated public consciousness. Edward Pearce's Lines of Most Resistance: The Lords, The Tories and Ireland, 1886-1914 (Little, Brown) reminds us of the durability of Westminster obsessions. The book of the century is about a future that never happened. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published exactly 50 years ago, portrayed an all-powerful totalitarianism that, on the face of things, belongs more to the middle of the 20th century than to the end. Paradoxically, however, the most terrifying Orwellian conceptual spectres - Newspeak, thought police, Big Brother, doublethink - haunt us with an ever-darker relevance at the dawn of the new millennium. BoC: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Ruth Padel Poet and critic For Jo Shapcott's Her Book, Faber took poems from Shapcott's first three collections and made them into one. The result is a strong, witty, imaginative book and an unusual opportunity to check out the developmnent of an outstanding gift well before the stage where you normally get a "Selected Poems". Amanda Dalton's How to Disappear (Bloodaxe) is a lovely, feisty debut. By making versions of the Spanish poet Machado, Don Paterson in The Eyes (Faber) leapt into different subjects, creating a gorgeous collection - softer, more lyrical and reflective, but with all his formal mastery. Paul Durcan's Greetings from our Friends in Brazil (Harvill) has manically confiding, openly personal poems which double as alert social comments on contemporary Ireland from this genius at flawlessly paced comic melancholy. Elaine Feinstein's collection of specially commissioned Pushkin poems, After Pushkin (Carcanet/ Folio Society) is a brilliant way of demonstrating in English the power of a master poet from another language and society. BoC: W B Yeats, The Tower

Melvyn Bragg Novelist and broadcaster Euripides' Alcestis and Aeschylus' Oresteia, both translated by Ted Hughes (Faber): something marvellous happened to the writing of Ted Hughes in the last two or three years of his life. Whatever it was, after Tales from Ovid and Birthday Letters, these two thrilling translations show Hughes, the poetic dramatist, at his finest. The best novel I have read this year is The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson (Cape): funny, elegiac and edging into a darkness which the author could well explore further. The Isles by Norman Davies (Macmillan): a great, comprehensive historian on form, talking radical sense about Us. BoC: D H Lawrence, The Rainbow/Women in Love

John Walsh Writer Barry Unsworth's Losing Nelson (Viking) snd Michael Frayn's Headlong (Faber) were my favourite novels of the year. Both are studies in personal obsession that incorporate a little too much non-fiction - respectively, history lessons and lectures on iconography - but are immensely satisfying. And Gilbert Adair's A Closed Book (Faber) offered the reader the spooky experience of hearing a narrative unfold without a line of description: a truly original work. Best poetry collections (and I read every single collection this year, as a judge of Forward Prize) were Jo Shapcott's My Life Asleep (Oxford) and Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife (Picador); most gratifying discovery was Smith/Doorstep Books, a small but enterprising publisher talentspotting marvellous new poets, especially Christopher North and Stephanie Norgate. The most enjoyable biographies: DJ Taylor's Thackeray (Chatto) is a burstingly vivid account of the Victorian age's most worldly chronicler; Valerie Grove's Laurie Lee: the well-loved stranger (Viking) reveals the arch-romantic of Slad and Spain to be perhaps the idlest writer who ever lived, but a world-class seducer and fantasist; and Emma Tennant's Burnt Diaries (Canongate) was the most nakedly personal memoir I've read since the heyday of J R Ackerley. The story about Emma driving to Scotland to steal a photograph of Princess Margaret still makes me blush on her behalf. The book of the century is indisputably Ulysses, that vast Echoland of voices, that awesome firework display of language and thought. But if I had to select the book that goes on giving pleasure, it would be a dead heat between Leslie Halliwell's Film Guide and Margaret Drabble's Oxford Companion to English Literature BoC: James Joyce, Ulysses

Mary Allen Writer and arts executive The highlight of 1999 was the novel by Haruki Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (Harvill). Murakami writes of contemporary Japan, urban alienation and journeys of self-discovery, and in this book he combines recollections of the war with metaphysics, dreams, hallucinations and the hero's search for his missing wife into a powerful and impressionistic work. Murakami was born in Japan and emigrated to America; Ruth L Ozeki emigrated to Japan from the US. Her first novel My Year of Meat (Picador) places the two cultures side by side with observations on the use of growth hormones, the amorality of television and the claustrophobic nature of Japanese culture, creating a witty and original work. A book that should have attracted much more attention was Sarah Dunant's Mapping the Edge (Virago): essentially two thrillers in one, each digging down into the fears and fantasies that are released when we don't know what has happened to someone we love. An excellently crafted novel that demands to be read in one sitting. BoC: James Joyce, Ulysses

Christina Patterson Critic I continue to be amazed by the quality and diversity of new fiction-writers bursting onto an already crowded scene. This year I was particularly impressed by Tomek Tryzna's powerful reworking of the Faust legend, Girl Nobody (Fourth Estate), Daren King's linguistically inventive tale of poverty and pillpopping, Boxy an Star (Abacus) and Jenny Offill's delightful, tender account of maternal madness, Last Things (Bloomsbury). Doyenne of pain A L Kennedy proved on peak form in her new novel, Everything You Need (Cape), which explores the familiar themes - grief, loss and damage - with her trademark clarity and wit. Susie Orbach's fictionalised case studies, The Impossibility of Sex (Allen Lane) offered a thrilling glimpse of the therapeutic relationship from the therapist's point of view. On the poetry front, I enjoyed Rita Dove's On the Bus with Rosa Parks (Norton), Don Paterson's versions of Machado, The Eyes (Faber) and Carol Ann Duffy's subversive take on history, The World's Wife (Picador). BoC: T S Eliot, The Waste Land

Michael Arditti Novelist and critic Three highly individual novels hardly constitute a trend, but Rose Tremain's Music and Silence (Chatto), Clare Colvin's Masque of the Gonzagas (Arcadia) and Gillian Freeman's His Mistress's Voice (Arcadia) all focus on musicians (an English lutenist, an Italian composer, and a Polish cantor respectively), recreating their period settings with wit and grace. Other novels to have particularly impressed me are Jake Arnott's The Long Firm (Sceptre), Peter Everett's The Voyages of Alfred Wallis (Cape), Michael Frayn's Headlong (Faber), Ronald Frame's The Lantern Bearers (Duckworth), Bergljot Hobaek Haff's Shame (Harvill), Joanne Harris's Chocolat (Doubleday) and Peter Nadas's The End of A Family Story (Cape). Away from fiction, I have been delighted to make the acquaintance of Lord Berners, both in his reissued memoirs, First Childhood and A Distant Prospect, and in Mark Amory's biography (Chatto); fascinated by Berners's friend Diana Mosley in Jan Dalley's biography (Faber); and appalled by Lady Mosley's friend Hitler in Ian Kershaw's biography (Allen Lane). BoC: Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Christina Hardyment Biographer and critic 1999 saw publication of two splendid tomes of exceptional scholarship, both well-larded with wit and perception: Elizabeth Crawford's The Women's Suffrage Movement 1866-1928 (UCL Press) provides fascinating mini-lives for hundreds of neglected heroines. Norman Davies's idiosyncratic and challenging The Isles: a history (Macmillan), shakes up our perception of ourselves with a sparkling saga that starts with Cheddar Man and ends with Bill Bryson. Children (and their parents) have been blessed with the third of J K Rowling's irresistible chronicles, Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban (Bloomsbury), and sailors can retreat happily into their bunks with Passage to Juneau (Picador), Jonathan Raban's mesmerising account of his voyage from Seattle to Alaska: part history, part anthropology, part autobiography. BoC: Ernest Vinaver's edition of The Works of Thomas Malory

Charlotte Cory Novelist The most extraordinary novel I have read this year was a reprint from 1929: Her Privates We by Frederic Manning (Serpent's Tail), a devastating account of fighting in the First World War. The funniest book has been Boring Postcards by Martin Parr (Phaidon), which I keep on the kitchen table and chortle over during breakfast. This sends my cornflakes flying. Sadly, I know most of the places depicted intimately: motorway service stations, horrendous shopping centres, caravan sites etc. A very unboring book was John Major: the autobiography (HarperCollins), which I have read from cover to cover twice. It has a fascination all its own. BoC: Franz Kafka, The Trial

Christopher Hirst Critic Without a shadow of doubt, the most outstanding work to be published this year is Alan Davidson's long-awaited Oxford Companion to Food (OUP). Addictively readable, chockful of splendidly recondite information, it is probably the most entertaining reference book ever published. Bella Bathurst's The Lighthouse Stevensons (HarperCollins) richly merited its unexpected success. Illuminated by the evocative photographs of the late Edwin Smith, Architecture in Britain & Ireland 600-1500 by Lucy Archer (Harvill) is a concise compendium of this island's greatest artistic expressions. Great Stone Circles by Aubrey Burl (Yale) is the crowning achievement by the most insightful and readable expert on Britain's megalithic treasures. Despite being a celeb spin-off, Pure Drivel by Steve Martin (Viking) is a work in the great tradition of New Yorker humorous essays. BoC: The Most of S J Perelman

Anna Pavord Gardening writer The last fin de siÿcle was no more wholesome than this one, though the leading players at least had the courage of their convictions. Ann Harries, who was born and brought up in Cape Town, takes the real events of that age (the Jameson Raid, the Boer War) and real people such as Cecil Rhodes, Oscar Wilde and John Ruskin as the starting point for her first novel, Manly Pursuits (Bloomsbury). In 1899, just before the Boer War, a reclusive Oxford don arrives in Africa with the 200 English songbirds that Rhodes has ordered for his garden. He is the novel's narrator and Ms Harries has written a brilliant and engaging narrative. The Orchid Thief (Heinemann) is a non fiction book that reads like a novel. Its genesis was a brief newspaper report of a lawsuit involving an orchid buff called John Laroche and the theft of plants, including the rare ghost orchid, from a swamp on Florida's west coast. From that small seed, the American writer, Susan Orlean, produced this brilliantly conceived account of obsession. Her story wanders off into engrossing side-channels, exploring the background of the Seminole Indians, the history of orchid growing and the nature of the landscape. Books of the century are impossible to nominate, except within very narrow parameters. So, in the field of garden reference books, I'd choose W J Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, first published in 1914 and now in its eighth heroic edition.