Christmas Books Special: Novels

It's been a cracking year for fiction. There were many novels I didn't get round to reading, so what follows is necessarily incomplete - but here are my favourites.
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The Independent Culture

The Booker Big Three (David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Sceptre £16.99; The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, Picador £16.99; The Master by Colm Tóibín, Picador £15.99) are all essential. Read Mitchell to be dazzled, Hollinghurst to be entertained and Tóibín to be moved.

The Booker Big Three (David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Sceptre £16.99; The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, Picador £16.99; The Master by Colm Tóibín, Picador £15.99) are all essential. Read Mitchell to be dazzled, Hollinghurst to be entertained and Tóibín to be moved.

I took a while to get into Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury £17.99). But slowly, inexorably, this peerless tale of magic pulled me in. I admired her brilliant set-pieces, like Strange's magical meddling at the battle of Waterloo, and the moving scene at Windsor where he attends the mad King George III. The mock-learned footnotes alone are filled with fascinating tales and fairy lore. This was a stunning achievement.

No heroine this year was more beguiling than Alice in Scarlett Thomas's PopCo (Fourth Estate £12.99), a character so wayward that she went to bed with her homoeopathic remedies for much of the book until she felt like joining in the plot again. A mix of maths, cryptography and vegan politics, this book might just change your life.

I found it a bit harder to take Justin Cartwright's adored Ju-Ju, the lovely girl who falls from grace in The Promise of Happiness (Bloomsbury £16.99). In fact I rather enjoyed her mortification, which I suspect was against the author's intentions. But the point is, I totally believed in her and in the rest of her family as they swirled into meltdown. A compelling, complex, layered novel, this was a sophisticated literary treat.

Nicola Barker's Clear (Fourth Estate £14.99) took as its time-line the 44 days that US magician David Blaine spent dangling in a box by the Thames. The spectacle brings together an authentically Barkerian selection of misfits, and the novel even features a sex scene aboard HMS Belfast.

I was a great fan of Hari Kunzru's debut, The Impressionist, so was overjoyed to find that his follow-up Transmission (Hamish Hamilton £12.99) was just as brilliant. A global soup of themes and influences, it mixed Bollywood and Silicon Valley with that most crazy-making computer virus of them all - love.

Finally, Ronan Bennett's Havoc in its Third Year (Bloomsbury £16.99) was a gripping and hallucinatory tale of Northern recusants in the 1630s. Unflinching, compassionate and wise, it took historical fiction to new heights.

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