Not-so-famous Seamus is the bookies' choice

Suzi Feay announces this year's winners and losers in the literary world's favourite party game
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He Didn't win the Booker Prize, but Seamus Deane can console himself with the praise of his peers. Our survey of the myriad Books of the Year lists shows that Reading in the Dark, his extraordinary memoir of growing up in Ireland, is the most frequently recommended volume.

Books of the Year is a traditional party-game. Like musical chairs, round and round and round it goes as ranks of critics and writers nominate their favourites. Log-rolling - the recommendation of books written by friends of the recommender - is not as common or obvious as myth has it.

What came through strongly this winter is the delight in a good read - and a good read is what critics, fellow writers and pundits thought of Reading in the Dark.

Written in fresh, resonant prose, Deane's work counterpoints a child's- eye view of Londonderry in the 1940s with revelations of the way in which a family is haunted by the past and its atrocities. Among those who vouched for it were Tom Paulin, Jeremy Paxman, Pat Barker (who judged it "astonishingly accomplished"), Julia Neuberger (she thought it "beautifully crafted"), Bernard O'Donoghue, Antonia Fraser and Blake Morrison.

Deane is strongly tipped to win the Whitbread first-novel prize, to be announced on 6 January. It may even becomeoverall Whitbread book of the year.

Granta Books must be kicking themselves. Deane's long-awaited first "novel" - excerpted in Granta magazine as long ago as 1986 - was originally commissioned by ex-editor Bill Buford. When the finished book was presented, publisher Frances Coady asked Deane to wait for publication until January 1997, when the new Granta book list - with big names such as Jeanette Winterson and Blake Morrison - is launched. Despite the fact that "the book would never have been written if Bill Buford hadn't nagged me into it", Deane defected to Jonathan Cape.

"Granta had been waiting for the book for so long that it was a running joke," said Dan Franklin of Cape. "I was delighted to pick it up. I thought it was a masterpiece. If it had been me, I would have published straight away - what a way to launch a new list, with a novel which damn near wins the Booker."

A host of well-wishers rushed to nominate Beryl Bainbridge's Titanic story, Every Man For Himself, as if to console her for her Booker near- miss: Muriel Spark, Dirk Bogarde, Clare Francis, John Mortimer, Lisa Jardine, William Trevor, PD James and fat cook Jennifer Paterson all raved.

Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace was applauded by a claque of women novelists, including Hilary Mantel, Joanna Trollope, Anita Brookner, Ruth Rendell and Kathy Lette. The Booker winner, Graham Swift's Last Orders, seemed to appeal to both male and female, with Blake Morrison, Pat Barker, Kazuo Ishiguro and Jane Asher among its backers.

So far, so obvious, but there were surprise choices. Patrick McGrath's Asylum had some devoted fans, among them Philip Hensher and Colm Toibin. The most hyped novel of the year, John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure, made a strong showing, though perhaps it was more the critics' choice than the novelists'. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, the Daily Telegraph literary editor, John Coldstream, his deputy, James Walton, andthe paper's editor, Charles Moore, all approved.

There were no backers for "three chemical romances" by last year's ubiquitous bad boy: "Irvine Welsh has become something other than a writer, and Ecstasy shows it," said Candia McWilliam in these pages.

Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked into Doors was another notable omission from the "best of" lists, gaining a single vote. It was ignored by everyone except Julie Kavanagh, whose biography of Sir Frederick Ashton, Secret Muses, was itself the choice of Roy Strong, Elspeth Barker, Rupert Christiansen and Noel Annan.

Candia McWilliam praised Philip Hensher's novel Kitchen Venom, the book that lost him his day-job as a Commons clerk. Hensher is one of the pundits deploring the state of British fiction, complaining in the Spectator that this year there were "too many awful novels to mention". The playwright David Hare, writing in the Observer, agreed, finding British novelists "light years behind their colleagues in film, television and theatre, both in the self-consciousness of their style and in the unimportance of their subject-matter".

Also sharing a disdain for current fiction was Gilbert Adair, who is "doing his homework for the millennium" by choosing the heavyweight science book Schrodinger's Kittens, by John Gribbin. The eccentric Gordon Burn claims that: "If anyone in 1996 has written about English and Englishness better than Jarvis Cocker in Pulp's Different Class, I haven't been lucky enough to read it."

In non-fiction, Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf romped home, nominated by Doris Lessing, Helen Dunmore, Penelope Fitzgerald, Lisa Jardine, Roy Foster and Melvyn Bragg. Norman Davies's Europe: A History comes a close second (Jan Morris, Melvyn Bragg, Norman Stone, Blake Morrison, and John Monk, TUC general secretary).

The Sunday Telegraph's David Sexton has taken refuge from the hurly- burly world of fiction after his bruising encounter with Amanda Craig's "Paul Pinsent", and nominates a life of Samuel Beckett, James Knowlson's Damned to Fame, as his book of the year, alongside Richard Mabey's compendium, Flora Britannica ("the year's most enjoyable browsing"); gaining four other votes, the latter probably benefited from a late publication date, falling out of the reviewers' Jiffy bags in October.

Famous Seamus (Heaney) predictably tops the poetry poll, though Christopher Reid's charming Expanded Universes also made a strong showing.

The most flagrant log-rolling (if you don't count the mutual-appreciation societies of historians Ben Pimlott and Peter Hennessy, and Roy Strong and Antonia Fraser) is Jeffrey Archer's eulogy of Norma Major's coffee- table book, Chequers. Then there's Francis Wheen's enthusiastic endorsement of Martin Rowson's comic-book version of Tristram Shandy. Wheen actually turns up in the book, caricatured as one "Kysarcius" (pronounced "Kiss- arse-ious").

Most curious of all are those who, while purporting to name their books of the year, end up damning with faint praise. Longitude, the surprise scientific history bestseller, gained a respectable number of votes, from novelists Patrick O'Brian, Rose Tremain and others, but one supposed fan described it as "mercifully brief".

Also in the thanks-for-nothing category comes Giles Foden's nod to Alex Garland's backpacker novel, The Beach. "He's no stylist, but ..."