Books: Books of the year

From Bart Simpson to Che Guevara, from the Old South to the Far North: highlights of 1997, chosen by Independent writers and other leading authors

Edna O'Brien

Being bombarded with millennium fever, I decided to re-read Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Vintage), a series of lectures on the making of literature. Writing over 10 years ago, Calvino saw (and would now see more lamentably) the pestilence that has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty - the use of words. He is not a pundit but a sage, mourning the dearth of our language whether in politics, ideology, mass media or schools. The charge that this might be elitist is arrant hypocrisy. Nor is Calvino cossetting the writer; rather, he challenges them to be warriors, insisting that only when they set themselves tasks no one else dares will literature have a function. I would like this to be obligatory reading for the millennium.

Carol Birch

My favourite novel of the year was the debut from Irish writer Anne Haverty. A man's fixation with a sheep may not sound like promising material for fiction, but in One Day As A Tiger (Chatto) Haverty produced one of the most acutely observed depictions of rural Ireland of recent years. Peter Carey's Jack Maggs (Faber) was also a great read, a complete web of intrigue and understated emotion in pre-Victorian London. Skating just this side of caricature and getting away with it was William Sutcliffe's clear-sighted and hilarious novel, Are You Experienced? (Hamish Hamilton), about the excruciating game of one-upmanship played by well-off backpackers in India. I very much enjoyed Angela Carter's collection of brilliant journalism, Shaking a Leg (Chatto).

Shena Mackay

Among the books I have enjoyed or been intrigued by this year are The Queen of Whale Cay, the life of "Joe" Carstairs by Kate Summerscale (Fourth Estate); A Trouser-Wearing Character: the life and times of Nancy Spain by Rose Collis (Cassell); Cleopatra's Wedding Present: Travels through Syria by Robert Tewdwr Moss (Duckworth); Fiction: The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage); The Lady With The Laptop by Clive Sinclair (Picador); Morning All Day by Chris Paling (Cape); Adele by Mary Flanagan (Bloomsbury) and The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken (Vintage).

Harry Pearson

The best novel I read this year was Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie (Secker). Set among the Native American population of modern Seattle, it is an angry and moving book which offers little resolution. A happier glimpse of America comes in Duncan McLean's Lone Star Swing (Cape), which details the Orkney author's trip around Texas in search of the sites and surviving purveyors of Western Swing. McLean has a great ear for dialogue, a droll sense of humour and his enthusiasm achieved the impossible: it made me want to buy records by men in cowboy hats. The book that gave me most pleasure, or at least led me to it, was The Beers of Wallonia (The Artisan Press): John Woods and Keith Rigley's exhaustive survey of the breweries of French- speaking Belgium. One of those books whose detail borders on the obsessive, and all the more wonderful for it.

Gabriel Josipovici

The book that most absorbed me this year is hardly new: Eugenio Montale's Ossi di Sepia came out in 1925. But in William Arrowsmith's translation and commentary, (Cuttlefish Bones, Norton) it comes alive for the reader with less than perfect Italian. It completes a remarkable trilogy of Montale translations and is a fitting monument to Arrowsmith's lifelong work. Another translator and commentator whose love of his material and acumen will have won over many readers is Robert Alter. His Genesis: Translation and Commentary (Norton) is the best introduction I know, for the Hebrew- less reader, to one of the abiding masterpieces of world narrative. Anthony Hecht's poetry collection, Flight Among the Tombs (Oxford) shows Hecht, now in his seventies, writing as well as ever.

Peter Parker

Bruiser (Serpent's Tail), the first novel by Richard House, describes a complicated affair between an English businessman and a young American boxer. The circling, feints, lunges and sheer intimacy of boxing provide a haunting metaphor for the relationship. A sparse, melancholy, beautifully written book about the bruises life can inflict. "Joe" Carstairs was a bruiser of a different kind, a ferociously butch speed-boat fan who ended up as The Queen of Whale Cay (Fourth Estate). Kate Summerscale's shrewd account of an heiress who slept with scores of women but lost her heart to a sinister male doll was the year's most beguiling biography.

Christopher Hirst

It took an American publisher and author to produce a worthy celebration of the finest British caricaturist. The illustrations in Max Beerbohm Caricatures by N John Hall (Yale) are beautifully reproduced and the chatty text is a joy. Anyone enraptured with Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell (Cape), a poignant profile of a vintage New York eccentric, should seek out McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, with more addictive New Yorker pieces. Thomas Pynchon's mammoth pastiche Mason & Dixon (Cape) is an exuberant return to form. Philip Roth's dark panorama American Pastoral (Cape) begins a trilogy which promises to rate among the great fictions of our time. In his monumental reassessment of Keats (Faber), Andrew Motion breathes fire into a pallid stereotype.

Christopher Hope

The Reader by Bernard Schlink (Phoenix House (translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway) is a tender, horrifying novel that shows blazingly well how the Holocaust should be dealt with in fiction. A thriller, a love story and a deeply moving examination of a German conscience. My treat came in the form of The Pope's Elephant (Caracanet) by Silvio A Bedini. The sad, mad and salutary tale of the little white elephant, Hanno and the jolly Medici Pope Leo X; Raphael and Luther have walk-on parts. Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life (Picador) is the best primer I know for those wary of the Real Thing. Deeply beguiling. I read Katiza's Journey (Sidgwick & Jackson), Fred Bridgland's skewering of Winnie Mandela, with fascination. The Mother of the Nation devouring her children: a kind of Lady Macbeth of Soweto.

Michael Arditti

At least one jury got it right. Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces (Bloomsbury) is not just the year's best novel written by a woman but its best novel per se. A searing study of survival, blending epic scope with intimate detail, it makes history dance. Elsewhere, two outstanding novels touched on the life of Christ. Jim Crace's crystalline Quarantine (Viking) recreated the temptations in the wilderness and John Fuller's impassioned A Skin Diary (Chatto) relocated the Nativity to a Welsh village. Finally, it's always a delight to discover a remarkable new poet. Ruth Sharman's Birth of the Owl Butterflies (Picador) is an exceptionally poignant and witty collection.

D J Taylor

Not a great year for novels by senior Americans, but I was transfixed by the anger of American Pastoral (Cape), Philip Roth's account of the impact of time and circumstance on a single family. David Newsome's The Victorian World Picture: Perceptions and Introspections in an Age of Change (John Murray) was one of the finest of this veteran historian's many fine books - a dazzling piece of deconstruction and rebuilding. I would have given the Booker prize to Black Ajax (HarperCollins), George Macdonald Fraser's flaming portrait of the Regency prizefighter Tom Molineaux.

Carole Angier

My Best Books of 1997 are all translations; so this means some Best Translations, too. Bernhard Schlink's The Reader (Phoenix House, translated by Carol Brown Janeway) is a short sharp shock of a novel, about the question of German guilt for the Holocaust. Le Testament Francais by the Russian-French Andrei Makine (translated by Geoffrey Strachan), is a beautiful Proustian novel about exile, loss and literature. But my absolute best is Peter Nadas's A Book of Memories (Cape), a huge, demanding novel about Communist Hungary, art and homosexual (but not only) love. It took Nadas many years to write, and Ivan Sanders and Imre Goldstein several to translate: a lifetime's masterpiece for all three.

Carol Rumens

Elizabeth Bishop's collected art-work, Exchanging Hats (edited by William Benton, Carcanet) gave me most pleasure. Out in the Open, a dual-text edition of poems by Cathal O Searcaigh, translated by Frank Sewell (Clo Iar-Chonnachta, Conamara), was the most refreshing new poetry collection. There were too many over-hyped new novels and boring anthologies.

Duncan Fallowell

Shakespeare's sonnet sequence on love is the supreme masterpiece of English Renaissance humanism. The new edition, Shakespeare: Sonnets (The Arden Shakespeare), edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, is the clearest, most complete and up-to-date there is. She is the first editor for general readers not to mumble when dealing with the homoerotic aspect. Under her meticulous direction, the sequence opens out like a magical garden, its beauties enhanced, its mysterious prospects illuminated. Derry Moore's photographic sequence Evening Ragas (John Murray) is also a magical book. These crumbling Anglo-Indian relics of princely life, rendered in the tones of smoke, emerge as from an opium dream, with every plate a story.

Gilbert Adair

Currently, my consuming passion is mathematics (so much more fascinating than the boring old arts) and the book which has meant most to me in 1997, partly because it has taken me years of reading vulgarisations to be capable of following it, is Georg Cantor's Contributions to the Founding of the Theory of Transfinite Numbers. Nothing produced by a novelist or a poet or a dramatist can match the vertiginous pleasure of exploring Cantor's hierarchy of the infinite. Of books published this year, the one I have enjoyed most is Matt Groening's The Simpsons (HarperCollins), a comprehensive, superbly illustrated guide to another work of genius, the absolute pinnacle of late 20-century popular culture.

Terry Eagleton

The English tend not to visit Ireland much, perhaps fearful that they will get their heads shot off in Connemara. Though one of the most sublimely beautiful fringes of Europe lies on their doorstep, they abandon its charms to tourists from the other side of the globe. An Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape (Cork University Press) should set this piece of perversity to rights. The Cork Press, previously a rather sleepy little outfit, has been galvanised by an enterprising new editor, and this magnificently illustrated Atlas is one of the fruits of her labours. Edited by three of Ireland's most eminent scholars, and mustering a whole range of disciplines, it tells you all you need to know about the difference between a raised bog and a blanket bog, limestone lowlands and Atlantic littoral, thatched and slated roofs. The book combines a scholarly but lucid text with a feast of maps, diagrams and photographs, and would make an excellent present for the Hibernophile.

Denis MacShane

Tim Garton Ash's The File (HarperCollins) brought back Eastern Europe of the 1980s as no other book has managed. One to give grandchildren when they ask what European communism was really like and to show them how English can still be beautifully written. David Campbell, the owner-publisher of Everyman, has shown what flair and panache a decade of working in France can bring to English publishing. His new handy-sized poetry anthologies are original in selection and handsome in their production. The worst book of the year was John Redwood's Penguin diatribe against Europe, which so singularly helped the Tories on 1 May.

Jeremy Lewis

In The Yellow Book (Gallery Press), Derek Mahon proves again that he is the best Irish poet of the Heaney generation. Like his fellow-Ulster Protestant Louis MacNeice, he is elegant, urbane and classical in form; no doubt his preference for writing about metropolitan angst in Paris or New York rather than peat-cutting or sectarian strife has contributed to his undervaluation. Mahon's despair at the blandness of modern life is shared by the embattled narrator of Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version (Chatto), a wise-cracking Jewish Montrealer with a taste for Montecristo cigars and tumblerfuls of Macallan: 18-century in its energy, this must be the funniest novel in years. Equally funny, in a snobbish, self-deprecating, rather feline way, is James Lees-Milne's Ancient as the Hills: Diaries 1973-74 (John Murray). Here he worries - unnecessarily - about incontinence and senility, and wonders "who on earth can these Chinks be?" after spotting Gurkhas on guard duty outside St James's Palace.

Jan Morris

I shall remember 1997 chiefly because of two extraordinary European novels of the past which I read (or rather finished) for the first time: Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (Minerva) and Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (Picador), both in translation from the German. Both seemed to me works of such mighty power, and so relevant to our own time, that I shall always think of them not as expressions of the past but as memorials of my own fin de siecle.

But I reviewed half a dozen excellent new books too, and one in particular excited me as plainly the first volume of a definitive work: N A M Rodgers's The Safeguard of the Sea (HarperCollins), the opening voyage in his naval history of Britain - authoritative, graceful, intensely readable.

John Campbell

The most astonishing book I have read this year is Ian Mitchell's scrupulous account of the Tolstoy-Aldington litigation, The Cost of a Reputation (Topical Books, pounds 10): privately published, because no commercial publisher would touch it, which is a scandal in itself. The bigger scandal is the Establishment cover-up it reveals to protect Lord Aldington's reputation by withdrawing vital evidence from his trial. Mitchell's book is a tour de force of exhaustive scholarship which reads like a thriller.

If you think you have already read more than enough about Virginia Woolf, Hermione Lee's wonderfully intelligent and luminously evocative Virginia Woolf (Vintage) will change your mind. This is biography of the very highest quality.

Pete Davies

Travel: Stephen Smith's Land of Miracles (Little, Brown) is a wonderfully observant account of Cuba, elegantly written with a dry wit and a nice edge of self-deprecation. Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita (Cape) is intriguing and compelling on Antarctica.

Fiction: James Blinn's The Aardvark Is Ready For War (Doubleday) is Catch 22 with more testosterone and better technology. James Lee Burke's Cimarron Rose (Orion) is, as usual from this fine writer, much more than just a good thriller.

Sport: I loved Jonathan Rendall's bittersweet boxing tales in This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own (Faber). But few will come close, in this year or any other, to the quirky and passionate inventiveness of Eduardo Galeano's Football In Sun And Shadow (Fourth Estate).

Mark Fisher

In Salt Water (Faber), Andrew Motion is at his best with poems that probe personal and public pains, deaths slinking through water. Don Paterson (God's Gift to Women) and Simon Armitage (CloudCuckooLand) also have strong, brim-full collections. Incidents and ambiguities in Vikram Chandra's short stories Love and Longing in Bombay (Faber) remain in my mind and nag at me, weeks after I first read them.

Jenny Turner

This winter, I would like everyone likely to enjoy it to read Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon (Cape). Unfortunately, I have no power to give people the one thing you really need for reading Pynchon, which is a bit of time. It does look horrible to begin with, page after page of flatulent 18th-century macaroni. But if you can give yourself the time to get used to the Pynchon method, you'll find the clever-cleverness quickly warms up. At the moment, I am trying to get people to read this book by telling them it's like the essence of Enlightenment all gift-wrapped with a lovely bow.

Lisa Jardine

Sadie Plant is that rarest of animals, a cyber-geek with a sense of humour. Asked by Melvyn Bragg on Start The Week whether she really believed that new technology heralded a brave new dawn for women, her riposte was "Well, my book believes it". Zeros + Ones: digital women and the new technoculture (Fourth Estate) is witty, acute, exacting and readable. Stylistically, it belongs somewhere between postmodern feminist fiction and history of science. Its narrative strategy emulates the interwoven strands and overlapping threads, the multi-layered ideas, of cyber-literature itself.

Melissa Benn

Leon Dash's Rosa Lee (Profile Books, pounds 9.99) is humane, political journalism at its best. Dash, a reporter on the Washington Post, chronicles the life and death of Rosa Lee Cunningham, mother of eight, heroin dealer and prostitute, a perfect prototype for Downing Street's social exclusion unit. But Rosa was also a loving mother, a skilled worker, a caring grandmother. The beauty of Dash's book lies in its modesty. Slowly, he uncurls the story of a terrifying and tedious life, allowing us to be witnesses not voyeurs. The moral is only too clear; the tragic waste of generations of black and poor Americans. Its tougher message becomes apparent at the end: there are real limits to "individual morality" and "aspiration", as peddled by new Democrats and Labourites alike.

Denis Healey

Increasingly, I find myself re-reading the classics. During my last summer holiday, I read all of Turgenev's novels and stories, and Emily Dickinson's poems. Nevertheless, I derived great pleasure from three books published in the past 12 months: Juliet Barker's The Brontes: a life in letters (Viking) gave me a new insight into the Bronte family; in particular, Patrick's letters show how misleading a picture Mrs Gaskell painted of him. Nigel Nicolson's Long Life (Weidenfeld) is beautifully written: a friend's life which ran parallel to mine at Balliol, in Italy and Yugoslavia during the war, later in Parliament and Sussex. Norman Davies's Europe: a history (Oxford) - besides paying due attention to central and eastern Europe - is illustrated by little capsules with shrewd insights into events and people.

Gordon Burn

Who else would have had the nerve to take a tilt at the Lee Harvey Oswald saga so soon after Don DeLillo seemed to have sucked the guts out of it in Libra? Only Norman Mailer. Oswald's Tale (Abacus) is a kind of companion volume to Gary Wills and Ovid Demaris's outstanding New Journalistic rendering of the life of Jack Ruby, killer of the killer. Teeming, engrossing, skilful, it proves that there is no such thing as a "good story", only good writers with unlazy ears and an original approach. I was impatient to read Underworld, DeLillo's new novel (Picador, January 1998) and I am impatient to recommend it as a culmination of his gifts. Compacted and capacious, hard-focused yet improvisatory, it triumphantly reignites the possibilities of what has often appeared to be a floundering, failing form. In The Cut by Susanna Moore (Picador) was the other novel that impressed me most this year.

Charles Nicholl

Certainly the most intriguing book of the year is The City of Light by Jacob d'Ancona, edited and translated by David Selbourne (Little, Brown). If genuine - there has been some controversy on this point - it is a lost masterpiece of early travel writing, a gutsy, fascinating account of a 13th-century Italian merchant's journey to China. Among modern travellers, few have ventured more courageously than Dea Birkett (Serpent in Paradise, Picador) whose sojourn on Pitcairn was a battle with claustrophobia and intrigue a thousand miles from anywhere.

Elizabeth Young

Best newcomer: Slow Dance On The Fault Line (Flamingo) by Donald Rawley, a Truman Capote for MTV. Best biography: Utopia Parkway: the life and work of Joseph Cornell (Cape) by Deborah Solomon, despite a limited budget for art-work. Best memoir: Laid Bare: wrecked lives and the Hollywood death trip (Amok) by John Gilmore, one of LA's weirdest who has been close to everyone, from James Dean to Brigitte Bardot. Best polemic: Mind Invaders edited by Stewart Home (Serpent's Tail) for those who want to learn about the bizarre occult practices of the Royal Family and much worse. Best novels: liking A M Homes's The End Of Alice (Anchor) will get you labelled a literary ambulance-chaser but it remains a brave attempt at a certain type of US academic, intertextual novel. Will Self's Great Apes (Cape) was one of the few UK publications this year that was not dull, dull, dull.

Malcolm Bradbury

Robert Hughes' s American Visions (Harvill) isn't simply a remarkable history of US painting, but a quite remarkable history of America itself. So is Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (Cape): the story of the two British shapers of America's dividing line; this was worth the wait, even if it falls into longueurs at the end. Rose Tremain's The Way I Found Her (Sinclair- Stevenson) was a wonderfully subtle Parisian pleasure, and one of several British novels that show fiction's state to be far better than that represented by the Booker shortlist. Robert Fagles' new translation of The Odyssey (Viking) is a glorious and beautifully presented reinvigoration of that sacred text, poetry and narrative excellently integrated.

Penelope Lively

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's The Beggar and the Professor (Chicago) is history with the immediacy and power of his marvellous Montaillou. The climate of 16th-century Swiss Protestantism lifts with great effectiveness from his distillation of the letters and diaries of Thomas Platter and his son Felix - a fascinating story of upward mobility taking the family from beggery to public distinction. Few novelists can match Carol Shields in structural skill. Larry's Party (Fourth Estate) is a brilliant fictional reflection on what it may be like to be a man in the late 20th century - serving up an entire life in loops, twists and vivid prose.

Andrew Davies

The Country Life by Rachel Cusk (Picador): Girl in the throes of a nervous breakdown goes to be au pair for a family of monsters; it's a bit like Jane Eyre but with belly-laughs, very touching and curiously just like life. Larry's Party by Carol Shields (Fourth Estate) is shimmeringly vivid, reminded me of Updike at his best and is very skilfully patterned. I greatly enjoyed Moss Side Massive by Karlene Smith (The X Press), all about beasbwais, homegirls, funky dreds, you name it, it right there, seen? Exciting and informative. For work (what lovely work!): Wives and Daughters (Gaskell) whose Molly Gibson runs Lizzie Bennet close for favourite girl in lit.

Dea Birkett

As I spend most of my life travelling, I am an armchair stay-at-home and like books which explore the familiar, domestic world. Susan Wicks's Driving my Father (Faber) exposes the everyday; it's both warm and prickly, like a wool vest. Hallfield School International Recipe Book gathers recipes (Bulgarian Tarator, Mongolian Huushuur, Nigerian Chin Chin) from 50 nationalities of families who attend this inner London school. And a special mention to A M Homes's The End of Alice (Anchor) and Kitty Kelley's The Royals (no UK publisher yet), because any book that those in power don't want us to read must have merit. Orlando Figes

Richard Taruskin's Defining Russia Musically (Princeton) is the very best sort of cultural history - passionate, provocative and

totally persuasive. No one has done more to debunk the myth of "Russia" as a cultural self-identity. Equally impressive, in a quiet "English" way, is John Brewer's rich and subtle study The Pleasures of the Imagination: English culture in the eighteenth century (HarperCollins). I also admired Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Che Guevara (Bantam), which dispels another myth. And Literary Russia by Anna Benn and Rosamund Bartlett (Picador) is so absorbing as a guide book that it can be read just as well in bed.

Sean French

Three books I had to ration so that I could get on with my life: Rosa Lee by Leon Dash (Profile Books), which traces the progress of a Black American family from sharecropping to drive-by shootings in four generations with no easy answers; Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (Macmillan): heroism, greed, vanity and death on top of Everest in the disastrous storm of May 1996; Richard Davenport-Hines prepared the notes on Auden and MacNeice's "Last Will and Testament" for the edition of Auden's Prose edited by Edward Mendelson (Faber), disinterring 60-year-old jokes just before the last people who understood them died. Have scholarly notes ever been funnier? Also, the catalogue to the August Sander exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is the most moving book of photographs I have seen.

Marek Kohn

"Snow-balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware... ". I can read the first sentence of Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (Cape) over again with as much pleasure as the first time, when I knew at once that I would love all 773 pages as much. It took only a week to restore my faith in novels. As one expects of Pynchon, he depicts his protagonists, the 18th-century surveyors who mapped the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, as cat's-paws of forces and intrigues beyond their comprehension; but here he shows how one can be at peace with such a world. The novel has profound human sympathy as well as wit, and its pastiche is sustained gracefully to the final lines.

Laurie Taylor

Most of this year's sociology crop owed more to the demands of the Research Assessment Exercise than any burning desire to communicate new truths. One magnificent exception was Frank Furedi's Culture of Fear (Cassell). "Passions", Furedi asserts, "that were once devoted to a struggle to change the world... are now invested in trying to ensure that we are safe". Well written, soundly researched, and bursting with moral indignation. There was no finer piece of ethnography than Duncan McLean's Lone Star Swing (Cape), the wildly funny, obsessive search by novelist McLean for the origins of the amazing music he stumbled upon in an Edinburgh junk shop. The novel? No competition. Philip Roth's American Pastoral (Cape), with its heroically perverse demonstration that living is not about getting people right but "getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and, then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again".

Amanda Foreman

After a bonanza period for books on the Second World War, all the paperbacks are now out and there is a bewildering choice of world, British, traditional, revisionist and post-revisionist accounts. The following six are outstanding: Martin Gilbert's The Second World War (HarperCollins) is the best overview, combining narrative pathos with historical analysis. Fascism: a history by Roger Eatwell (Vintage) stands out as one of the few sane and readable surveys of fascism as an intellectual movement. The Sharp End: the fighting man in World War II by John Ellis (Pimlico) is a well-informed study of the British Army by a gifted writer. The Road to 1945 by Paul Addison (Pimlico) and Never Again by Peter Hennessy (Vintage) describe the war from a British political perspective. Finally, Donald Kagan's On The Origins of War (Pimlico) is a one-of-a-kind investigation into the cause of four major wars.

Maya Jaggi

Inexplicably passed over by the Booker judges, Caryl Phillips's sixth novel The Nature of Blood (Faber) is a masterful and tender exploration of memory and trauma, belonging and loss, through three mythic "outsiders": Anne Frank, Othello and Shylock. Rather than forcing parallels between the black and Jewish experience, it questions the society that persecutes, in its pathological obsession with "purity" of blood. As much about the nature of Europe, it reveals a hermetic fortress that, like Venice's walled ghetto, tolerates and milks its "guests" while bolstering its own identity with periodic pogroms. Intricately structured, and shot through with the author's customary irony, the novel adds up to far more than the sum of its parts.

Lisa Appignanesi

Two very different journeys held me. Jenny Diski's Skating to Antarctica (Granta) is a wonderfully poised exploration of the slippery terrain of childhood, family life and memory counterpointed with a trip into the mythic whiteness of the Pole. Martin Gilbert's Holocaust Journey (Weidenfeld) travels along the tracks of a history we would rather forget to the sites of wartime horror, and is also a moving excavation of the past. Doris Lessing's vivid autobiography Walking in the Shade (HarperCollins) read back to back with her novel covering the same period, The Four-Gated City, reminded me that fiction can be a far richer medium than memoir. Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version (Chatto) provided a much needed dose of dazzling comedy.

Frank McLynn

The best work of pure history was Patrick French's Liberty or Death (HarperCollins), on the events leading up to the British departure from India in 1947. The most interesting cultural history, dealing with reactions to the sinking of the Titanic, was Down with the Old Canoe (Norton) by Steven Biel and the most fascinating intellectual foray Richard Noll's The Aryan Christ (Macmillan), which proved that Jung was even odder than we thought. Sanjay Subrahmanyam's Vasco da Gama (Cambridge) demonstrated how biography could be written in a sociological way and Michael White's Newton (Fourth Estate) was an impressive attempt to deal with a multitudinous man. But the year's two finest biographies dealt with high adventure and deadly risk-taking by profoundly thoughtful men: Che Guevara by Jon Lee Anderson (Bantam), and Nansen by Roland Huntford (Duckworth). Andrew Marr

No problems this year. The best novel I read was Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (Minerva) - a good, old-fashioned, beautifully-drawn number. Best history book was Orlando Figes's sweeping, bleak history of the Russian revolution, A People's Tragedy (Pimlico); I also strongly recommend John Brewer's The Pleasures of the Imagination (HarperCollins), on 18th-century English culture. The most enjoyable poetry was in two Bloodaxe titles by Adrian Mitchell: Blue Coffee and Heart on the Left. The wittiest, most original other book was How Proust can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (Picador): self-help like you never read it before.

Roger Clarke

I was underwhelmed by the chintzy Booker selection of novels but I did like the Chicago grunge of Bruiser by first-time novelist Richard House (Serpent's Tail) and the extraordinary, revitalising Mason & Dixon (Cape) by Thomas Pynchon. The historical novel can bring out the worst in writers but Pynchon has made it thick as Stockholm tar and strange as a dream. Equally dream-like and beguiling is Iain Sinclair's Lights Out For The Territory (Granta). The Krays jostle with ley-lines and Rachel Whiteread. Mentions also for Paul Virilio's Open Sky (Verso), a superb, slightly mad examination of the destruction of time by modern technologies, and Dennis Cooper's Guide - already published in the US (available here in March) and confirming him as the only living transgressive writer of any great importance in the US.

Beryl Bainbridge

The Homicidal Earl: the life of Lord Cardigan by Saul David (Little, Brown): This splendid book partly redeems the chap supposedly responsible for the massacre of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. He was clever, studious and loved women, so he can't have been all bad. The Faber Book of Science, edited by John Carey: a series of fascinating essays on such diverse subjects as malaria, the first electric light bulbs, early photographs and Charles Lyell's shocking revelations on the shifting of rocks. A must for all those, like me, who long to be educated, and fast. Nansen: the explorer as hero, by Roland Huntford (Duckworth): a magnificent biography of the first man to cross Greenland and first to get nearest to the North Pole. He nearly froze to death both times, having turned to Polar exploration as a holiday from researching the structure of the central nervous system. The Chaplet of Pearls, by Harriet Waugh (Bloomsbury): an exhilarating novel about bumping off a bumptious young woman determined to deconstruct the novels of Charlotte M Yonge. Telling Tales by D J Enright (Oxford): a magical retelling of Paradise Lost, plus the legend of Faust. How's this for a line from Eve, chomping her apple? "`I have done nothing original,' she told herself. `But I mustn't be selfish.' She plucked one for Adam."

Shusha Guppy

Tales from Ovid (Faber), Ted Hughes's rendition of 20 stories from Metamorphoses, combines Ovid's sharp nose for "sniffing out the odoriferous flowers of fancy" with his own passionate eloquence. Roger Scruton's The Aesthetics Of Music (Oxford) is a philosophical exploration of the meaning of music, from Pythagoras and Plato to today. Despite its awesome erudition, it is a book for the layman, and enhances understanding of modern classical music at its best, while deploring the banality of pop. Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (Flamingo) vividly describes a landscape and society about which I knew nothing. Perceptive and imaginative, she is an authentic new voice. Orlando Figes' history of the Russian Revolution, A People's Tragedy (Pimlico), is a comprehensive and readable account of one of the most terrible events of this terrible century. Figes makes the suffering of the Russian people painfully tangible.

Lachlan Mackinnon

Bernhard Schlink's extraordinary novel The Reader (Phoenix House) is a compelling meditation on the connections between Germany's past and its present, dramatised with extreme emotional intelligence as the story of a relationship between the narrator and an older woman. It has won deserved praise across Europe for the tact and power with which it handles its material, both erotic and philosophical. Ted Hughes's By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember (Faber) is the best introduction to English-language poetry I know. Essays by Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott combine in Homage to Robert Frost (Faber); there is more good sense about poetry here than in many longer works.

Louise Doughty

As a judge of the David Higham Prize, I've spent most of this year reading first novels and there has been some truly splendid work among them. It would be unethical of me to name names yet - suffice to say that our shortlist knocks spots off the Booker. A Booker-shortlisted work that I did enjoy immensely was Bernard MacLaverty's Grace Notes (Cape), a fine novel about a woman composer suffering from post-natal depression. Her creativity is explored with great feeling and an engaging lightness of touch. In contrast, the worst book I read this year was probably Bodies of Water, a short-story collection from the American country singer Rosanne Cash (Gollancz), all about herself, and plumbing fresh depths of mawkishness and self-indulgence.

Emma Hagestadt

One of the best page-turners of the year was Amanda Craig's A Vicious Circle (Fourth Estate): the kind of book that delivers a thrill of recognition on every page - and not just for the media hacks it so deliciously lampoons. A sprawling London panorama, it features a fabulously prickly cast of single mothers, newspaper magnates and priggish young men fonder of designer kettles than their wives. Sadder, but just as absorbing, Tim Lott's memoir The Scent of Dried Roses (Penguin) does for Southall what Proust did for Paris. And in her second novel Ella and the Mothers (Sceptre), Rachel Morris shows herself a shrewd judge of femininity. Thanks also to Tinky Winky's Bag (BBC Children's Books) for provididng many a peaceful five minutes.

Charlotte Cory

Kitty Kelley's The Royals (no UK publisher) has made me realise just how brainwashed we all are. Dismissed as "tittle-tattle" by those toadying for knighthoods, this astonishing book is unavailable here. British taxpayers shell out millions to give the rest of the world something to tittle-tattle about - yet we are so feudal, we deny ourselves the very pleasure we pay for. An antidote to this lack of free speech is the free spirit described in another royal biography, Kate Summerscale's The Queen of Whale Cay (Fourth Estate). In 1934, lesbian heiress "Joe" Carstairs purchased an island in the Bahamas where she ruled supreme. As someone who loves cookery books, but not cooking, I relished the subversive Play with your Food by Joost Elffers. Here, Brussels sprouts and parsnips are for sculpting into elaborate dragons and pigs.

Geoff Dyer

Sven Lindqvist's Exterminate all the Brutes (Granta) was many things: a reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, an account of a journey into the Sahara desert, and an investigation of the genocidal impulse that underwrote the colonialist enterprise. Lindqvist's book is virtually unprecedented. It is also a perfect illustration of reading and criticism as lived - as opposed to desk-bound - activities. Richard Misrach's extraordinary photographs of the western deserts of the US are fairly well known now. Crimes and Splendours (Bulfinch) is both an impeccably produced retrospective and an attempt to view his work as the culmination of a tradition stretching back to the pioneers of American landscape photography.

Jeremy Lewis

In The Yellow Book (Gallery Press), Derek Mahon proves again that he is the best Irish poet of the Heaney generation. Like his fellow-Ulster Protestant Louis MacNeice, he is elegant, urbane and classical in form; no doubt his preference for writing about metropolitan angst in Paris or New York rather than peat-cutting or sectarian strife has contributed to his undervaluation. Mahon's despair at the blandness of modern life is shared by the narrator of Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version (Chatto), a wise-cracking Jewish Montrealer: 18th-century in its energy, this must be the funniest novel in years. Equally funny, in a snobbish, self-deprecating, rather feline way, is James Lees-Milne's Ancient as the Hills: Diaries 1973-74 (Murray). Here he worries - unnecessarily - about incontinence and senility, and wonders "who on earth can these Chinks be?" after spotting Gurkhas outside St James's Palace.

Jan Morris

I shall remember 1997 chiefly because of two extraordinary European novels of the past which I read (or rather finished) for the first time: Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (Minerva) and Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (Picador), both in translation from the German. Both seemed to me works of such mighty power, and so relevant to our own time, that I shall always think of them not as expressions of the past but as memorials of my own fin de siecle.

But I reviewed half a dozen excellent new books, too, and one in particular excited me as plainly the first volume of a definitive work: N A M Rodgers's The Safeguard of the Sea (HarperCollins), the opening voyage in his naval history of Britain - authoritative, graceful, intensely readable.

John Campbell

The most astonishing book I have read this year is Ian Mitchell's scrupulous account of the Tolstoy-Aldington litigation, The Cost of a Reputation (Topical Books, pounds 15): privately published, because no commercial publisher would touch it, which is a scandal in itself. The bigger scandal is the Establishment cover-up it reveals to protect Lord Aldington's reputation by withdrawing vital evidence from his trial. Mitchell's book is a tour de force of exhaustive scholarship which reads like a thriller. If you think you have already read more than enough about Virginia Woolf, Hermione Lee's wonderfully intelligent and luminously evocative Virginia Woolf (Vintage) will change your mind. This is biography of the very highest quality.

Pete Davies

Travel: Stephen Smith's Land of Miracles (Little, Brown) is a wonderfully observant account of Cuba, elegantly written with a dry wit and a nice edge of self-deprecation. Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita (Cape) is intriguing and compelling on Antarctica. Fiction: James Blinn's The Aardvark Is Ready For War (Doubleday) is Catch 22 with more testosterone and better technology. James Lee Burke's Cimarron Rose (Orion) is, as usual from him, much more than just a good thriller. Sport: I loved Jonathan Rendall's boxing tales in This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own (Faber). But few will come close, in this year or any other, to the quirky and passionate inventions of Eduardo Galeano's Football In Sun And Shadow (Fourth Estate).

Christina Hardyment

I bought Daghestan: tradition and survival by Robert Chenciner (Curzon) on the strength of chapter headings such as "King Khosrow's dumplings" and "Inventing the wheelbarrow: women and sex in the mountains". I was not disappointed. The most arresting of its many arresting images is a picture of the author being presented with a 16th-century Chechen single- family blood feud tower. Chenciner, writing with a racy freshness, is to the north-eastern Caucasus what Lawrence was to Arabia. An expert in cooking and carpets, with a lively eye for both anthropological curiosities and political machinations, he has had a long love affair with this largely unvisited region, His adventures in and knowledge of it are unique.

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