CHOICE FOR CHRISTMAS / Books of the year: What to read and what to buy this season: here, some of our reviewers pick their favourite titles of the year - poetry and politics; art and aggression

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Christopher Hawtree's Literary Companion to Dogs (Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 25) is a vast, rambling delight, poignant, heroic and often wildly funny. We have Peter Lawford on his canine co-star: 'Lassie was a vicious bastard'. Freud sings an aria from Don Giovanni as he strokes his chow, luxuriating in 'an affection without any ambivalence'. Stories, poems, epitaphs, Homer, Somerville & Ross. Bliss. All manner of beasts and birds throng the pages of Douglas Botting's Gavin Maxwell: A Life (HarperCollins pounds 22.50). Those cuddly otters were perfectly capable of Lassie-style behaviour, yet one victim who almost lost her leg to them convinced surgeons and police that she had trodden on something unusual in Loch Ness. Here is a life woven from the stuff of high romance, a tragic and fascinating quest. Richard Bonfield's Bestiary: An Animal Alphabet (Coypu Publications pounds 6.95) is a strong first collection of poems, notable for its elegance of form, lyric talent and witty rhymes, as well as exquisite Victorian illustrations. Brilliant value.


Imagine a group of British writers and artists - say, T S Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, David Gascoyne, Herbert Read, William Empson, John Piper - sitting down in the years 1928-32 and systematically discussing their preferred sex positions, how frequently they could come, when they last wanked. Then they would move on to the mysteries of the female orgasm, the multifarious causes of impotence, sex with nuns and donkeys. Eliot would ask severely: 'Apart from ejaculating in the vagina, mouth or anus, where do you like to ejaculate, in order of preference?' and Herbert Read would want to know: 'Could you abide an exclusive regime of fellatio?' It's all hard to imagine. Yet this is what was going on across the Channel under the austere and probing chairmanship of Andre Breton: fellow participants and victims included Aragon, Prevert, Tanguy, Artaud, Queneau and Man Ray. The results are startlingly candid, unboastful, scary, comic, un-PC and Gallic. What's more, Investigating Sex (ed Jose Pierre, trs Malcolm Imrie, Verso pounds 17.95) is published with the financial assistance of the French Ministry of Culture. State smut, egad]


A year for brick-lovers. Brickwork: Architecture and Design by Andrew Plumridge & Wim Meulemkamp (Studio Vista pounds 25) is elegant and informative, and shows all the airy pragmatism this earthy and satisfying medium is capable of. For playful extensions of the concept, find What is a wall after all? by Judy Allen & Alan Baron (Walker pounds 7.99): you can pretend it's for your children. Brickies' heavenly language of frog, saddleback and birdsmouth meets its match in the terminology of the angelic host: Malcolm Godwin's learned and intriguing Angels: An Endangered Species (Boxtree pounds 16.99) examines benign beings through the eyes of van der Weyden or Wim Wender, the Babylonians or Batman. Sylvie Germain's novel The Book of Nights won its translator, Christine Donougher, this year's Scott-Moncrieff Prize; Germain's Days of Anger (Dedalus pounds 8.99), which won the Prix Femina, is now out in English.


In a culture dominated by the idea that life can make sense if only we live it correctly, Denis Leary provides much-needed equal time for the gross, tasteless, unpalatable truth. No Cure for Cancer (Picador pounds 5.99) is an incandescent hymn to the joys of drugs, drink, illness and death. If this doesn't make you laugh out loud, you probably are dead. Almost as savagely comic, although with an ecologically soft centre which Leary would have cauterised, is Strip Tease (Macmillan pounds 14.99), the latest of Carl Hiaasen's Dantesque guides to South Florida.


In a year when history seemed to be teaching no one any lessons, it was tempting to take refuge in the history of art. Not that Francis Haskell's History and its Images (Yale pounds 29.95) allowed much escapism: a beautifully embellished volume which was deeply subversive about the use of art as historical 'evidence'. Its scale, vividness, energy and individuality appropriately commemorate people such as Michelet, Burckbardt and Huizinga: the richest book of the year. Almost as massive, but focussed on one era, John Hale's The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (HarperCollins pounds 20) is a tapestry of total cultural history, preoccupied by the transmission of ideas rather than the traffic of commerce or armies. Finally, Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan's landmark new volume in the Buildings of Ireland series, North Leinster (Penguin pounds 30) isexemplary in detail, scale and design, and provides a combination of learned guide and sprightly vade mecum to high crosses, ruined great houses, parish churches and cigarette factories.


Churchill's Doctor: A Biography of Lord Moran by Richard Lovell was fascinating, especially about the Churchill family's attempts to suppress Moran's diaries. Yet it was barely reviewed, perhaps because it was published by the Royal Society of Medicine (pounds 25). John Charmley's splendidly provocative and revisionist biography, Churchill: The End of Glory (Hodder pounds 14.99), was followed by Churchill, a collection of essays edited by Robert Blake and Wm Roger Louis (Oxford pounds 19.95). Paul Addison's Churchill on the Home Front 1900-55 (Cape pounds 10) stressed an aspect of the great man often overlooked, while Martin Gilbert produced the first of his long-awaited wartime companion volumes, Churchill Warpapers I: At the Admiralty 1939-40 (Heinemann pounds 75). For collectors of Churchilliana, 1993 was indeed one of our finest hours.


Alan Clark is unlikely to be more than a footnote in history as a minister, but he has achieved a more significant memorial than many who out-ranked him: his Diaries (Weidenfeld pounds 20) are egotistical, snobbish and occasionally disgraceful but provide an unmatchedly candid record of life in modern politics. Unlike his political mistress in her memoirs, Clark appreciates that history is in the details - dirt and gossip included. Less raucous but equally informative is the Oxford Dictionary of World Politics, ed Joel Kreiger (pounds 30), an orderly and authoritative account that is ever more useful as political authority collapses. Richard North Paterson's brilliant thriller Degree of Guilt (Hutchinson pounds 14.99) combines America's most powerful myths (the Kennedys, Watergate, Irangate) into an enthralling story of politics and the law.


In a rich year for poetry, with fine collections from Paul Durcan (A Snail in My Prime, Harvill pounds 7.99), Lawrence Sail (Out of Land, Bloodaxe pounds 7.95) and Gillian Clarke (The King of Britain's Daughter, Carcanet pounds 6.95), three are unforgettable: Sharon Olds' fierce, unflinching sequence on the death of The Father (Secker pounds 6.99), Carol Ann Duffy's tough, lyrical, magnificent poems of love and memory in Mean Time (Anvil pounds 6.95) and Les Murray's Translations from the Natural World (Carcanet pounds 6.95), speaking in tongues of all kinds of creatures, from molluscs to elephants, in a poetry that is unwhimsical, profoundly imaginative, beautiful and funny.


Each of my books is full of spirit of place. Still Life with Bridle (Cape pounds 9.99) by Zbigniew Herbert contemplates in lucid reflective prose the Dutch and their culture. Peter Fuller's Modern Painters (Methuen pounds 25) offers an unfashionably moral modern account of the Englishness of English art. The air and light at play in David Hockney's That's the Way I See It (Thames & Hudson pounds 24.95) reflect what is best in his chosen place - California - and combine with his wide-open talent to produce a continually fresh inspiration. Afternoon Raag by Amit Chaudhuri (Heinemann pounds 14.99) has grown in my head, its Bengali-Oxonian precision silencing noisier, less affectionate novels. For children, I recommend the Scottish Maisie books by Aileen Paterson (Three Hills pounds 2.50). Maisie is a Highland kitten who visits her Edinburgh Granny and shops at the No Mean Kitty boutique: the dialogue is sharp, the urban jokes spot-on.


The elegy is one of the root-forms of poetry, but the 52 poems in Sharon Olds' The Father (Secker pounds 6.99), radiating from a death, feel new. The death of her father - anticipated, witnessed, remembered - draws from Olds an extraordinary dry attentiveness: there is an impersonality about bereavement which corrects the autobiographical poet's drive to turn everything into an aspect of the self. Olds registers shifts in a relationship that is as long as her life without taking away her father's refusals, and when she inscribes another story onto his - 'three breaths left, / lined up like a woman's last three eggs' - she has earned the right to do it. It's a wonderful book.


The best novel I've read this year is Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses (Picador pounds 14.99), about a boy who runs South to a Mexican ranch and learns hard lessons about life, love and loyalty. You don't have to be a boy to appreciate it, though it helps. Sharon Olds' The Father (Secker pounds 6.99) is a collection of poems about her difficult old dad's death from cancer - angry, distraught, unsparing in its detail but oddly beautiful, too: 'He lifts his eyelids and mild / sluices of shining come out of his eyes.' In Heisenberg's War (Cape pounds 20), the American journalist Thomas Powers draws on international archives and reserves of moral passion to defend the war record of the enigmatic German scientist, Werner ('uncertainty principle') Heisenberg: a fascinating exculpatory biography.


Books of poetry published in the Republic of Ireland by the excellent Gallery Press can sometimes be a bit slow to cross the Irish Sea, so it wasn't until early January that I read the translations by Heaney, Longley, Mahon, Montague, Muldoon and others that make up Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill's Pharaoh's Daughter (pounds 6.90) . This is an outstanding volume which with a poignant assurance places its hope in the 'little boat / of the language'. Paul Muldoon's witty and perfect Shining Brow (Faber pounds 4.99), a libretto based on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, has that tragic gaiety Yeats celebrated. It continues Muldoon's critical dialogue with that dominating cultural architect and subtly plays games with the Celtic diaspora and the cultural colonialism which has followed it. Inexplicably, Jamie McKendrick's second volume, The Kiosk on the Brink (OUP pounds 6.99), has hardly been reviewed. His poems have a Dantesque stringency and beautifully composed visual certainty that makes us sense 'the sulphur under the earth's crust'. Their fascination with the derelict and exhausted is shared by the poems in Nil Nil, Don Paterson's stylish and similarly unnoticed first volume from Faber (pounds 5.99). Paterson makes the English language buzz with unexpected words and phrases - skink, tackets, scry, mussitates, guck.


Orwell once wrote about a class of 'good bad books'. Lady Thatcher's The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins pounds 25) belongs to another genre: important ghastly books. It is impossible to get through this huge, mean-spirited work without feeling diminished by it. Yet anybody still affected by the Eighties gush about the 'Thatcher miracle' should make the effort. After the chill of Thatcher, warm up with J K Galbraith's The Culture of Contentment (Penguin pounds 6.99). The author's claim that Western politicians of every persuasion have made a Faustian deal with the prospering and self-centred majority of citizens, against the listless, alienated, powerless and impoverished remainder, has a continuing resonance in the age of Michael Howard and Peter Lilley. Finally, for the guilt-ridden super-rich, Kevin Morgan's Harry Pollitt (Manchester University Press pounds 40), about the charismatic leader of the British Communist Party. This slender volume is one of the best (and most exploitatively priced) labour movement biographies I have read.


It's been a fine year for books about toppled British icons. I admired Andrew Motion's Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life (Faber pounds 20): the twin-bladed eloquence of Motion's prose style, full of deft antitheses, honours Larkin's deep contrariness, does justice to the poems and brings the man memorably to life. Now that those years are over, The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher (HarperCollins pounds 25) turns out to be an unexpectedly engrossing pleasure. I cherish her wintry humour, as when at Andropov's funeral she reflects that her expensive new fur-lined boots represent money well spent, since they're bound to come in handy for Chernenko's burial. I liked the Thatcherish ruthlessness of Anthony Holden's The Tarnished Crown (Bantam pounds 14.99), with its stab-in-the-back job on the Prince of Wales, lately Holden's royal chum.


The novel I most enjoyed this year was Aquamarine by Carol Anshaw (Virago pounds 5.99), a tender and wry examination of the choices its heroine might have made. Three completely different versions are given of how her life might have turned out, linked by the image of the aquamarine water in the swimming-pool and the two women athletes who meet in it. A new issue of a classic cookery book is Edouard de Pomiane's Cooking With Pomiane (Serif pounds 7.99): both serious and funny, never pompous, enjoyably anti-slimming. Giovanni di Paolo's ravishing illustrations of Dante's Paradiso are reproduced in an edition by John Pope-Hennessy (Thames & Hudson pounds 45), hideously expensive but pure delight.


Pat Barker's The Eye in the Door (Viking pounds 14.99) is gripping, moving, beautifully constructed and profoundly intelligent. It centres on the terrible trauma suffered by young First World War veterans, but is also about gender, class, truth, survival and love. It has revelatory - and still relevant - things to say about Britain, yet it is bursting with energy and darkly funny. None of which, astonishingly, cut any ice with the Booker judges. David Malouf's Remembering Babylon (Chatto pounds 14.99), about a young white castaway raised by aborigines in 19th-century Australia, did make it to the shortlist, but do not be put off by the venemous drubbing Germaine Greer gave it on TV. She, apparently, read a racist, colonialist apologia; I read an extraordinarily deft and humane study of two civilisations colliding. Malouf's best book yet, which is saying a great deal.


It has been a rich year's reading, with first-rate novels from Gunter Grass (The Call of the Toad, Minerva pounds 5.99), Ismail Kadare (The Palace of Dreams, Harvill pounds 7.99) and Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, Picador pounds 14.99), and some strong stories from Gabriel Garca Marquez (Strange Pilgrims, Cape pounds 14.99). But I'd like to pick out some superb first novels: Tibor Fischer's antic and touching Under The Frog (Polygon pounds 5.99) and A L Kennedy's Looking for the Possible Dance (Secker pounds 7.99), two that the Best of Young British judges were bright enough to honour, and Tim Pears's haunting, panoramic In the Place of Fallen Leaves (Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99), which we were too stupid to include. Finally, two exceptional first novelists from America: Siri Hustvedt, whose The Blindfold (Hodder pounds 8.99) has poise, high style and genuine, off-centred oddness; and Alan Lightman's stunning Einstein's Dreams (Bloomsbury pounds 11.99), a book for which the only antecedents are Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and Primo Levi's The Periodic Table.


As small wars grow and multiply, the military historian John Keegan provides the long view: A History of Warfare (Hutchinson pounds 20) is a lucid, panoptic account of human aggression and the ideologies and technologies that facilitate it. Alan Friedman's Spider's Web (Faber pounds 17.50) recounts, in minute but telling detail, how the West armed Iraq against Iran, then reaped the harvest of destruction. And Gerald Hanley's Warriors: Life and Death among the Somalis (Eland pounds 7.99) is a timely reprint of an Irishman's sympathetic account of living among feuding Somali clans in the last days of British administration.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art's sumptuous catalogue of its exhibition The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century (pounds 45) shows the diverse uses to which the new art of photography was put in the 19th century, from sweeping landscapes to pictures of convicted felons. I also loved Sharon Fermor's Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, Invention and Fantasia (Reaktion pounds 29), the first study in English for 40 years of an eccentric artist whose extraordinary evocations of myth and prehistory are unparalleled in Renaissance art.


Peter Hennessy's history of England from 1945 to 1951, Never Again (Vintage pounds 9.99) recreates the sense of hope and purpose of the period without glossing over its failures. It should be required reading in schools today, and is a bittersweet tonic for those old enough to remember the days of the start of the NHS, the setting up of the Third Programme and Butlin's holiday camps, Cripps' austerity and Marshall Aid - just for a start. History can be at least as entertaining as fiction or biography, and Hennessy has the magic touch. Jennifer Uglow's biography of Mrs Gaskell (Faber pounds 20) is another that must have taken years of research, but wears its learning gracefully, and gives a full, warm portrait of its subject together with the best discussion of her work yet written.


Peter Wollen, in Raiding the Icebox (Verso pounds 10.95), draws on an idiosyncratic range of sources to reflect brilliantly on aspects of contemporary culture, from film robots to tourist souvenirs. The theme of Significant Others, edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron (Thames & Hudson pounds 14.95) - artists' love affairs - has often been given the Lust for Life biopic treatment, but these essays focus on the meaning for the art of the love between couples like Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Incorporations (ed Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, Zone pounds 31.50) takes up live issues from global satellite broadcasting to body language in a series of key essays. It's also a sumptuous piece of book design. For sheer exuberant good humour, nothing could surpass Umberto Eco's Misreadings (Cape pounds 9.99), a collection of parodies and squibs that began appearing in the 1950s and 1960s, but whose panache has not faded one bit.

(Photographs omitted)