Books of the Year: Boyd Tonkin, John Walsh, Marina Warner and others

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The Independent Culture

The year's selection by Deborah Moggach, David Cesarani, John Campbell, A S Byatt, Carol Birch, John Walsh, Stephen Bayley, Antony Beevor, Alain de Botton, John Gribbin, Liz Jensen, Aamer Hussein, Christopher Hirst, Jonathan Coe, David Lodge, Pat Kane, Christina Hardyment, Emma Hagestadt, Marina Warner, Boyd Tonkin, D J Taylor, Colm Tóibín, Joan Smith, Charles Shaar Murray, Miranda Seymour, Anna Pavord, Christina Patterson, Lisa Appignanesi

Deborah Moggach, novelist

Two slim and enchanting novels I've read this year: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (Chatto & Windus) is the story of two youths, banished to a remote mountain village during Mao's Cultural Revolution. The discovery of a suitcase full of novels transforms their lives. It's a gem – funny and touching, a fable about the power of storytelling and the resilience of the human spirit. On 11 September, I happened to be reading a weird and rather wonderful novel about the first New York skyscraper. Martin Dressler by Steven Mullhauser (Phoenix) is the story of a driven man, a visionary empire-builder, who starts as a cigar-seller in Edwardian New York, sets up the first restaurant chain and ends up building a vast hotel. Anyone who loves the city should read this story; it's gripping, atmospheric and shot through with strangeness.

David Cesarani, historian

The Search for Roots (Allen Lane), Primo Levi's anthology of his favourite writing, opened my eyes to unknown European authors and an unknown side of Levi's character. Paul Steinberg's Speak You Also (Allen Lane) is a frank and self-critical account by the prisoner called "Henri" in Levi's account of Auschwitz. Neighbours by Jan Gross (NYU Press) exposed a terrible episode in Polish–Jewish relations and showed the power and importance of good history writing, a feat replicated in different circumstances by Richard J Evans in Lying About Hitler (Basic Books US), the best book on the David Irving trial. The Nose by Elena Lappin (Picador) found humour in this darkness, while Jake Arnott's He Kills Coppers (Sceptre) showed how well the novel can explore history and character closer to home.

John Campbell, historian and biographer

Many people always knew that Laurens van der Post was a posturing old windbag, but it has taken J D F Jones's authorised biography Storyteller: the many lives of Laurens van der Post (John Murray) to reveal that he was a compulsive liar, charlatan and fraud on a scale that makes Jeffrey Archer look like a harmless fibber. Not a good Christmas present for Prince Charles or Lady Thatcher, but a wonderfully satisfying read for the rest of us. Now that Peter Nichols's plays are being deservedly rediscovered, I greatly enjoyed his bilious, misanthropic, self-loathing but courageously unblinking Diaries 1969-77 (Nick Hern) as a sort of crib to this most autobiographical dramatist. I also enjoyed catching up with Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task (Penguin), which should be required reading for all biographers.

A S Byatt, novelist

J W Burrow's The Crisis of Reason: European thought 1848-1914 (Yale) traces clear paths through political and moral thought, lucidly connecting known and less-known thinkers into a new map of ideas. Jean-Pierre Dupuy's The Mechanisation of Mind (Princeton University Press) does the same, with exemplary clarity, for the early days of cybernetics, and the science of the mind. Ciaran Carson's Shamrock Tea (Granta) is a brilliant successor to the brilliant Fishing for Amber. Two works of fiction, both wonderfully translated by Ina Rilke, both short, both bristling with black humour, both creating complete worlds: Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Chatto & Windus) and Erwin Mortier's Marcel (Harvill). Dai Sijie wrote in French about Maoist re-education in remote China; Mortier in Flemish about post-war Belgium.

Carol Birch, novelist and critic

Unusually, my two main choices were both Booker shortlisted this year, and one actually won. The favourite by far was Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang (Faber), a fantastic mix of social history and legend that neither romanticised nor vilified the famous bushranger, and built to its terrible conclusion with a mesmerising inevitability. I also loved Ali Smith's Hotel World (Hamish Hamilton) and was glad to see it do so well. Smith just gets better and better. Others I have enjoyed are Beryl Bainbridge's According To Queeney (Little, Brown), Melvyn Bragg's A Son of War (Sceptre), and David Margolick's odd little biography of the wonderful Billie Holiday song, Strange Fruit (Payback Press).

John Walsh, writer

Reading 18 novels written by women, one after another, for the Orange prize wasn't the gruelling ordeal I feared; and it introduced me to Helen DeWitt, whose stunning The Last Samurai (Vintage) was the fictional debut of the year. Its premise couldn't be simpler – single mother Sybilla tries to teach small son everything about the world, starting with Homer, numerology and the films of Kurosawa – but its handling couldn't be smarter or more original. On holiday, Nick Hornby's How to Be Good (Viking) was passed from deckchair to deckchair with cries of delight and horrified recognition. It's that rare treat, a novel of ideas worked out with logic, humour and real wisdom. Roy Foster's The Irish Story (Allen Lane) administers several resounding slaps to those who would invent, sentimentalise, commodify or suppress Irish history, whether in Great Famine theme parks or the pages of the McCourt brothers. Matthew Sweet's Inventing the Victorians (Faber) was the most enjoyable historical work I read, as much for the author's airy, confiding style as for his indefatigably quarried researches. John Stammers's Panoramic Lounge-Bar (Picador) introduced a coolly startling new poet, vivid, allusive and musical – his elegy to the doomed Weldon Kees reads like a solo by Art Tatum. Finally, I had a lot of fun with Your Face Here: British cult movies since the Sixties by Ali Cattermole and Simon Wells (Fourth Estate), a well-written history of how Performance, The Wicker Man, Withnail & I and other homegrown oddities got made. There's a distinct whiff of obsession about it, I'm glad to say.

Stephen Bayley, design consultant and cultural historian

David Hockney's Secret Knowledge (Thames & Hudson) is sententious, exasperating and utterly wonderful. At one level it reads like an art-college dissertation prepared by the brightest and most wayward student. At another, it is a stirring argument from a great artist that will alter for ever the way we look at paintings. Hockney's thesis is that from the Renaissance to early Modernism, more artists than we ever suspected used cameras to make their pictures. His compelling illustrations are a superb complement to an amiably and chattily presented thesis; equally, an enormous appendix of correspondence with art historians makes fascinating reading. It's a marvellous contrast of intuitive belief up against cautious scholarship. Whether Hockney is right hardly matters: his book is another masterpiece from a national treasure.

Antony Beevor, historian

Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is all that one could want from a writer who combines exhaustive research with clear thinking, perceptive observation, a fascinating story and elegant writing. Katherine Frank's Indira (HarperCollins) is an outstanding biography by any measure and by a long way the best on the extraordinary dynasty that dominated Indian politics from the Raj until almost the end of the Cold War. Helen Dunmore's The Siege (Viking) is a double-layered love story set in Leningrad in the winter of 1941 as the city freezes and starves. I find it impossible to forget.

Alain de Botton, novelist and philosopher

I enjoyed David Pascoe's Airspaces (Reaktion), a meditation on air travel that – uniquely – focuses on what is poetic, exciting and modern about flying through the sky, rather than rehashing the litany of complaints about bad food, bad air and overcrowded cabins. In poetry, Picador republished Kate Clanchy's first collection of poems, Slattern, which belongs in the Philip Larkin/Wendy Cope school of the kind of poetry one can actually understand. And I was very moved by Philip Roth's latest novel, The Dying Animal (Cape).

John Gribbin, science writer

The two science books that I most enjoyed reading this year are both autobiographical or historical: Frans de Waal's The Ape and the Sushi Master (Allen Lane) and Edward Teller's Memoirs (Perseus). At one level the books are distinctly different: De Waal observes nature, specifically primate behaviour, and tries to find insights into human nature from it, while Teller, the "father of the hydrogen bomb", is creator of the most terrifying technology used by the hairless ape. Both, in their way, are controversial figures, and the fierce debates about whether humans are "merely" animals or have some unique attribute echo those about the desirability of making weapons of mass destruction. Both provide insight into human nature and fascinating 20th-century history as well.

Liz Jensen, novelist

For a large part of this year I chose the wrong books to read. As a result, I started many more than I finished, and hurled a few at the wall. But then, just as I was giving up hope of evangelising about anything, along came Jim Crace's The Devil's Larder (Viking), a collection of bite-sized vignettes about food. It's a tiny book, but it packs a deliciously subversive punch, and, as always with Crace, the language is so hypnotically sexy, it's almost edible. Then, joy of joys, Fourth Estate brought out Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections this year instead of next, and I was back in reading heaven, yelling "hooray" even louder. This novel is quite a different kettle of fish: a big-hearted, panoramic American epic, intelligent and wise but also wildly, stonkingly funny.

Aamer Hussein, writer and critic

Among Mimi Khalvati's luminous, intricate poems in The Chine (Carcanet, January) are a lyrical tribute to the Urdu poet Faiz and "The Snail", her stunningly oblique comment on natives and refugees. Mohammed Dib's "Exodus", from his rich, varied collection The Savage Night (Bison), narrates the departure of North Africans from a French village with an irony that should put Michel Whatzisname to shame. Hanan al-Shaykh's Only in London (Bloomsbury) gazes into the lives of Arab migrants with manic humour and sometimes unnerving candour. Tabish Khair explores the landscapes of memory and violence in a variety of forms, including gestures to Ghalib, Kabir and Rumi, in Where Parallel Lines Meet (Viking Penguin, India). Liberal Muslim voices all.

Christopher Hirst, writer

Edited by Lillian Ross, The Fun of It (Modern Library) is an effervescent anthology from The New Yorker's Talk of the Town section by Thurber, Updike and others. Combining social history with gory ichthyological detail, Close to Shore (Headline), Michael Capuzzo's account of the New Jersey shark fatalities of 1916, held me transfixed, though I'd hesitate to recommend it for beach reading. Food: a history (Macmillan) by Felipe Fernández-Armesto is an irresistible banquet of gastronomic lore. A lifetime's hoard of visual odds and sods, The Art of Looking Sideways (Phaidon) by Alan Fletcher is a fascinating midden (no index). Though a trifling affair, Trifle by Helen Saberi and Alan Davidson (Prospect Books) is an exemplary survey of a neglected dessert.

Jonathan Coe, novelist

For me, David Reynolds's memoir Swan River (Bloomsbury) stood head and shoulders above every other book this year. It's nothing like the usual slab of autobiography: a beautiful meditation on the nature of families, on the way that feelings are passed on almost imperceptibly from generation to generation. The material is crafted and shaped with the artistry that we would expect from our best fiction writers. Talking of whom, I much enjoyed both Perfect Tense by Michael Bracewell (Cape) and Surface Tension by Russell Celyn Jones (Abacus): two vivid and acute novels not in the least afraid to engage with the modern world.

David Lodge, novelist and critic

Ian McEwan's Atonement (Cape) was the most satisfying new novel I read this year: an engrossing from multiple viewpoints in a third-person style that is consciously and cleverly old-fashioned, but with a metafictional twist. I am an addict of Simon Gray's painfully funny books about his experiences as a playwright, and was delighted by the latest addition, Enter a Fox: further adventures of a paranoid (Faber). The authorial persona is as observant and eloquent as ever, but in this "post-alcohol stage" of his life he has acquired a certain resignation, and even pathos.

Pat Kane, writer and musician

Was I the only reader of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's Empire (Harvard) who rushed back to its pages after 11 September, confirming that these intense neo-communists had virtually predicted the terrible event? A perplexing, relentless yet often inspirational work. Pekka Himanen's The Hacker Ethic (Secker & Warburg) was a cool jet of Finnish brilliance injected into the e-society debate. Steven Johnson's Emergence (Allen Lane) was a successful and fluent attempt to put complexity theory at the service of cultural criticism. And the last in Philip Pullman's trilogy, The Amber Spyglass (Scholastic), was a dark powerhouse of subtlety, energy and mythos. My daughter and I read it till the spine cracked. Does a book receive a greater compliment?

Christina Hardyment, historian and critic

Robert Harvey's Cochrane: the life and exploits of a fighting captain (Constable), the true story of the man whose life inspired the naval novels of Patrick O'Brian, C S Forester and Captain Marryat, has been handed round our large extended family faster than anything since the latest Terry Pratchett. Talking of which, The Thief of Time (Gollancz) is Pratchett on top form, this time threatening the Discworld with the end of time and introducing Ronnie, Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. The meteorologist Susan Solomon's The Coldest March: Scott's fatal Antarctic expedition (Yale UP) proves with undeniable scientific logic that we have seriously underestimated the achievement of Scott and his team.

Emma Hagestadt, writer

Mothers rather than singletons walked off with some of the year's best parts. Rachel Cusk successfully bottled the milky fug of early motherhood in her first work of non-fiction, A Life's Work (Fourth Estate); Anne Tyler's dependably enjoyable new novel Back When We Were Grownups (Chatto & Windus) placed a disgruntled grandmother centre-stage; while Margaret Drabble's fictionalised account of her maternal forebears, The Peppered Moth (Penguin), took on that most formidable of figures, the Yorkshire matriarch.

Marina Warner, novelist and cultural historian

Devices of Wonder: from the world in a box to images on a screen (Getty Research Institute) by Barbara Maria Stafford and Frances Terpak is a packed wunderkammer of a catalogue, enclosing every kind of ingenious picturing instrument, from magic lanterns to dioramas to anamorphic perspective boxes to flicker books. The story Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker tell in The Many-Headed Hydra: the hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic (Verso) may read like a Utopian fable, but its vivid portrait of runaway slaves, pirates, exiles and radicals making common cause does at least offer hope in times of conflict: racism and sectarianism are not inevitable or hard-wired. Seamus Heaney is inexhaustible in Electric Light (Faber), a book of strong, remembered affections, filled with the ghosts of friends.

Peter Parker, biographer and critic

Even if you can't provide the tunes, you'll get a good idea of how the 20th century sounded in Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball's Reading Lyrics (Pantheon). No poetry is more truly popular than the song lyric, and this vast collection celebrates the rhymer's art. It also supplies the proper words for all those bits where we usually go, "dum de dum de dum". Swell, witty and grand. The two novels I most admired were Tobias Hill's The Love of Stones (Faber), which ranges confidently across centuries and continents in an engrossing and beautifully written tale about missing jewels, and Will Eaves's The Oversight (Picador), a droll, sexy, complex and cleverly layered story about what people see, or think they see.

Boyd Tonkin, literary editor, 'The Independent'

Ian McEwan's Atonement (Cape) deserves all its applause, but readers who love it should also seek out the fine mid-century writers (especially Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamond Lehmann) to whom it pays tribute. Helen Dunmore's portrait of the people of Leningrad in extremis, The Siege (Viking), achieves a lasting impact with extraordinary deftness; and David Mitchell's spellbinding Japanese fantasia Number9dream (Sceptre) makes me hopeful about the future of British fiction. From other languages, W G Sebald's Austerlitz (Hamish Hamilton) and Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red (Faber) showcase two great originals of world literature on peak form. The year's most joyous jeu d'esprit (or whatever that is in gutter Latin) was Bernardine Evaristo's exuberant verse-novel of sex and scandal in Londinium, AD211: The Emperor's Babe (Hamish Hamilton). Coffee-table slab of 2001: Dorling Kindersley's glorious wildlife encyclopaedia Animal – a must for those Attenborough moments.

D J Taylor, novelist and biographer

As a teenager who grew up reading The Spectator, I seized on the sheaf of early reviews that Peter Ackroyd reprints in his compendious Collection (Chatto & Windus) with huge enthusiasm. The road, of course, led to increasingly sedate literary essays – no offence to Ackroyd; this is where the road always does lead – but the sight of the twentysomething reviewer making mincemeat of, say, John Barth or Carlos Castaneda was a spectacle to relish. Having liked The Soldier's Return, the first novel in Melvyn Bragg's Cumbrian trilogy, I enjoyed its successor, A Son of War (Sceptre), even more. The accounts of "ordinary" people trying to convey the way they feel about one another are done with an immense, punctilious delicacy. As ever, V S Naipaul's Half a Life (Picador) concealed its compassion behind the traditional austere surfaces. Naipaul's trademark crustiness, in the wake of his Nobel laureateship, was as much a delight as the award itself.

Colm Tóibín, novelist

The Canongate Burns, edited by Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg (Canongate), is a magnificent and definitive work of scholarship. A thousand pages long, it provides not only a glossary and a context for the poems, but also a textual and historical note for each poem and song. Antoinette Quinn also breaks new ground in the first biography of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (Gill & Macmillan), in which he emerges as even funnier, more original, more industrious and indeed more tragic than before. Roy Foster's The Irish Story: telling tales and making it up in Ireland (Allen Lane) offers us a complex and supremely intelligent revision of Irish identity, both real and imagined. Paul Bailey's Three Queer Lives (Hamish Hamilton) offers us a hilarious and tender revision of his own life, and those of Fred Barnes, Naomi Jacob and Arthur Marshall.

Joan Smith, writer and critic

I'm not sure I actually enjoyed The Rights of Desire (Vintage), Andre Brink's novel about the turbulent relationship between a young woman and an older man, but I was certainly gripped by it. Novels set in contemporary South Africa often seem to strain for effect and place too much symbolic weight on their characters, but this one powerfully expresses the sense of lives that have come loose from their moorings. The novel I liked most this year was Rough Trade by Dominique Manotti (Arcadia, translated by Margaret Crosland and Elfreda Powell). Set in Le Sentier, the district of Paris where expensive clothes are made in sweatshops, it uses real events – the struggle by foreign workers in 1980 to get legal status – as the setting for an extraordinarily vivid crime novel. I also derived a great deal of pleasure from Evolution's Workshop: God and science on the Galapagos Islands by Edward J Larson (Allen Lane). This history of an isolated area also manages to chart changing attitudes toward religion, evolution and the environment. Larson's description of the way in which the islands' giant tortoises were nearly wiped out is heart-rending, but his account of the current breeding programme also gives grounds for optimism.

Charles Shaar Murray, music writer and biographer

Higher pop culture: Buffology for grown-ups starts with Roz Kaveney's anthology Reading the Vampire Slayer (Tauris Parke), while Steve Waksman's Instruments of Desire (Harvard University Press) transforms the guitaristic way of knowledge into a tool for understanding the 20th century. Most intriguing music-biz biography: Serge Gainsbourg: a fistful of Gitanes by Sylvie Simmons (Helter Skelter). Graphic Novels: Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on Earth by Chris Ware (Cape) amply deserves its status despite becoming a must-display item for people who may never read it. The Alamo (Titan), the ninth and final volume in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's bravura Preacher sequence, is as howlingly transgressive as mainstream comics ever get. Finally, a wander through the extraordinary mind of the much-missed Elizabeth Young: Pandora's Handbag (Serpent's Tail) is part lit crit, part memoir, part polemic, entirely engrossing.

Miranda Seymour, biographer and novelist

For escapist pleasure, dive into Nashborough by Elsie Burch Donald (HarperCollins), a dazzlingly accomplished first novel, which circles around the vicious and complex lives of two families in the American south. Spellbinding stuff. I was entranced by Richard Hamblyn's The Invention of Clouds (Picador) and touched and amused in about equal proportions by Paul Bailey's graceful Three Queer Lives (Hamish Hamilton). William Weaver's elegant new translation of Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno (Everyman) is a total joy.

Anna Pavord, gardening writer

In Flora (Scriptum-Cartago in association with the Royal Horticultural Society), Dr Brent Elliott, librarian of the Lindley Library in London, provides a sumptuous history of the garden flower. Illustrations, on almost every page, are drawn from the library's collection. It may look like a coffee-table book but isn't. When did the passion flower first bloom in Europe? What was the must-have garden flower of 1790? When did hollyhocks first get rust? The answers are all here. Sarah Maguire spent some of her time as poet in residence at the Chelsea Physic Garden collecting material for Flora Poetica (Chatto & Windus). You'll find the expected favourites: John Clare, Herrick, Heaney and Ted Hughes with a vivid piece about picking daffodils. More, though, is unfamiliar, including pieces by the Guyanese poet Fred D'Aguiar and the South African Seitlhamo Motsapi. Add Ursula Buchan's Good in a Bed (John Murray), a collection of her gardening columns for The Spectator, to make the perfect bedside trio.

Christina Patterson, director, the Poetry Society

The Canadian poet Anne Carson is that rare thing, a genuine original. Her most recent poetry collection, The Beauty of the Husband (Cape), isn't the best poetry book of the year but is one of the most interesting: a hugely idiosyncratic and witty chronicle of a crumbling marriage. Michael Hofmann proved that he was as good a critic as a poet with Behind the Lines (Faber), a dazzling collection of essays on a range of writers, film-makers and visual artists. The Pulitzer prize-winning American diplomat and historian George F Kennan's Sketches from a Life (Norton) offers moving glimpses of Hitler's Germany, post-war Eastern Europe and Stalinist Russia. This profoundly humanitarian book should be prescribed reading for all politicians.

Lisa Appignanesi, novelist and cultural historian

It was a good year for those borderline books that float somewhere between fiction and memoir. I was fascinated by Emma Richler's Sister Crazy (Flamingo) and its evocation of a childhood too good to topple its subject into ordinary adult life; Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Chatto & Windus) with its witty and unexpected evocation of life during the Cultural Revolution; and Nella Bielski's Oranges for the Son of Alexander Levy (which I mention even though I translated it many years back with John Berger), now reissued by Arcadia. History has given Bielski's moving account of life in the Soviet Union the texture of myth. I also finally caught up with Graham Robb's biography of Balzac (Picador), which has almost as much energy as its remarkable subject, and discovered Alexander McCall Smith and his endearing sleuth, Precious Ramotswe, she of No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency fame and now the subject of Morality for Beautiful Girls (Polygon). These are books about Africa that should make their way into every school library.

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