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    Written as an elegy for the writer's father, Correspondences is a beautiful object – concertinaed pages of portraits and poetry containing a precise and bittersweet melancholy

    There is pleasure to be had in the physical existence of Correspondences. It is heartening that publishers are willing to invest in such a painstaking, unusual, beautiful book. In an age of instant reaction, it demands contemplation. Even more than an ordinary volume of poetry, it asks you to take time. It is a stone-grey hardback – like a tablet or notebook – and can be read in several ways – and two directions. Its pages are pleated like an accordion and its music is as melancholy.

    Anne Michaels, poet and novelist (who won the Orange Prize in 1997 for Fugitive Pieces), has written an elegy for her father, Isaiah Michaels (1918-2009). But the book is more than that. It is an ambitious and carefully assembled funeral wreath to extend mourning into what she calls "layered kinship, a touch across the page". The book has the silent companionship you sometimes feel in a library. It is a gathering of her father's kindred spirits: poets, writers, intellectuals, political activists, musicians, holocaust survivors  – people who influenced, moved and defined him: "The men and women gathered here inhabited an historical landscape Isaiah Michaels knew intimately: their times and concerns joined his own."

    If you move through the book in one direction, you see a gallery of faces. The artist Bernice Eisenstein, herself the child of holocaust survivors, contributes portraits of Osip Mandelstam, Helen Keller, Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, SY Agnon, Albert Einstein, Bruno Schulz, Fernando Pessoa… and more. These portraits subscribe to the idea of correspondence themselves, have a family likeness with their almond-eyed gravity and jade, grey and turquoise palette.

    Michaels is fascinated by the connections between these figures – many Jewish but not all – and the best way into the book is through the biographical notes, which begin the process of plaiting lives together. The holocaust overshadows many of the lives. Selected quotations also give pause for thought such as Einstein's observation that "calm" is the "greatest challenge for the sailor".

    Michaels's long poem is calm and challenging. She writes with an intensity that takes time to adjust to – she has always been an acquired taste. This is partly because her writing is unleavened by wit. And there are moments here where she teeters on the brink of pseudery such as the line in which she writes about "all invisible freedoms/contained in a pair of socks". She is not afraid of getting a laugh for the wrong reasons.

    And yet – she keeps her nerve and the more you read, the more the emotion of the poem steals up on you. There is a particularly successful and harrowing section in which she allows numbers to speak louder than words. She records the address of Paul Celan's last flat – 6 avenue Emile Zola, the number of Charlotte Salomon's paintings (769) before she was deported and ends: "Even the unborn have a number, the same number/not given to the mother and all those/not worth counting."

    And there's a sympathetic quality to the poem about setting the table in which she describes a miscellany of broken chairs – even coming close to humour with "never enough chairs". The voice is hospitable and assured. I could have done without the "parsing" of vegetables (I'd have allowed them simply to be chopped) and would have kept the "symphony" on hold. But by the end one has drawn a chair up to Anne Michaels's table, especially as her moving final poem reaches out a hand to the first and shows us that grief is, like this book, an unbroken circle.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    A tribute to humanity and artistic self-discovery in a time of slavery from the first published African-American woman

    This week's poem, "An Hymn to Humanity" by the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley, combines Christian and classical myths in a lively depiction of the Incarnation that concludes with a celebration of artistic self-discovery. Wheatley's story is well-known. She was a frail seven-year-old in a shipment of slaves snatched from Senegal or Gambia, purchased cheaply by a prosperous Boston tailor to assist his wife in the housework. The Puritan family didn't adopt the child, and she wasn't freed from slavery until much later, but they educated her in the arts and sciences, and she began writing at an early age. Individual poems were printed and praised, though she was unable to find a publisher in the US for her first collection, containing this week's poem. It was published in London under the title Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral when she was still only 20 years old. Her life after her marriage to another freed slave, John Peters, spiralled into dismal poverty, and she died in childbirth at the age of 31.

    The "Hymn" testifies to happier times. Its jaunty, festive mood is inscribed in the rhythmic pattern: two tetrameter lines, followed by a trimeter, are repeated in each stanza, with a tight-knit a, a, b, c, c, b rhyme-scheme. Hymns usually have a more sober and stately rhythm, but this choice works seamlessly with the swift-moving narrative.

    Wheatley inverts the opening sentence. "A prince of heav'nly birth" is the subject, but she begins with the "dark terrestrial ball" of the earth, as if to emphasise the unique and dramatic arrival. The "azure-paved hall" represents the sky, of course, but also suggests a sumptuous palace with jewelled floors, evoking the wealth of a worldlier prince, and hinting that enlightenment is connected to privilege.

    The second stanza reveals how humanity has become divine: the prince has "fix'd his empire" in the "bosoms of the great and good". Wheatley seems to intend a tribute here to her adoptive Christian community. Unusual in the nativity scene is a truly fatherly God the Father, who embraces and praises "My son, my heavenly fair!" Stanza three declares God's command that Christ should inspire humans to "Enlarge the close contracted mind/ And fill it with thy fire". Again, Wheatley's sentence unfolds its grandeur slowly, by means of a grammatical inversion. This stanza is about self-transcendence. Religious enlightenment and a transforming education are entwined for Wheatley, with no suggestion of a rift between moral and intellectual discoveries.

    Resembling a messenger-god dispatched by Zeus, Christ "wings his way from star to star". The abbreviated word in stanza four, line five, is presumably "Godhead", the sacred source of "Virtue". Recalling the imagery of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit's descent in the form of tongues of fire, "the rushing God" notices the "raptur'd heart" of humanity, and so a new, more personal theme enters the poem.

    Wheatley is referring to herself in stanza five as "The languid muse in low degree", blessed by "the celestial nine" and given her poetic voice: "O'er me methought they deign'd to shine/ And deign'd to string my lyre." Both human friendship and the friendship of the muses, "immortal" and "laurel-crowned" are conjoined. The poet, singled out as "Afric's muse", swears her fidelity to God, and to His embodiment in redeemed humanity.

    If the nine Muses represent the poet's broad learning in the arts and sciences, the three Graces are goddesses of lighter, more social pleasures. Their invocation shows the true, unjudgmental generosity Wheatley extends to those she considers her earthly saviours and friends.

    An Hymn to Humanity


    Lo! for this dark terrestrial ball

    Forsakes his azure-paved hall

    A prince of heav'nly birth!

    Divine Humanity behold,

    What wonders rise, what charms unfold

    At his descent to earth!


    The bosoms of the great and good

    With wonder and delight he view'd,

    And fix'd his empire there:

    Him, close compressing to his breast,

    The sire of gods and men address'd,

    "My son, my heav'nly fair!


    "Descend to earth, there place thy throne;

    To succour man's afflicted son

    Each human heart inspire:

    To act in bounties unconfin'd,

    Enlarge the close contracted mind,

    And fill it with thy fire."


    Quick as the word, with swift career

    He wings his course from star to star,

    And leaves the bright abode.

    The Virtue did his charms impart;

    Their G-----! then thy raptur'd heart

    Perceiv'd the rushing God:


    For when thy pitying eye did see

    The languid muse in low degree,

    Then, then at thy desire

    Descended the celestial nine;

    O'er me methought they deign'd to shine,

    And deign'd to string my lyre.


    Can Afric's muse forgetful prove?

    Or can such friendship fail to move

    A tender human heart?

    Immortal Friendship laurel-crown'd

    The smiling Graces all surround

    With ev'ry heav'nly Art.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    The bestselling thriller writer picks 10 addictive reads - from crime to poetry, all guaranteed to be unputdownable

    Last night I finished reading the excellent One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie. I now have to make a tough decision: which book to read next?

    The notion of choosing is problematic, however.

    I don't want to read the books I have chosen to read: I want to read the books that have allowed me no say in the matter – seized me from the first page and released me only after the last full stop. Reading is the only area of my life in which I prefer to be non-autonomous. Ruth Rendell, one of my crime fiction heroes, once said that a novel should grip from the first line, and when I write my psychological thrillers this is exactly what I aim for.

    Over the years, I have been lucky enough to discover many books that have gripped me into total submission. Here, in equal first place, are 10 of them:

    See Jane Run by Joy Fielding

    A flawless psychological thriller, and the book that made me fall in love with psychological crime fiction. A woman finds herself in a shop wearing nothing but a coat, the pockets of which are stuffed full of money. She has lost her memory and has no idea who she is, so when a man comes forward claiming to be her husband, and armed with plenty of proof, she has no choice but to let him take her home … This is the archetypal Everywoman-plunged-into-a-nightmare novel. The clues are expertly planted, and the revelation at the end brings on a perfect rush of: "Oh, I so should have worked it out – but I didn't."

    House Rules by Rachel Sontag (published in the UK as Daddy's Rules)

    This is a riveting memoir about a psychologically abusive childhood and a girl who saved her own life with very little help from anybody. It should not be dismissed as a misery memoir – it's beautifully written, truly chilling, maddening and uplifting. Sontag was an ordinary teenager who heroically mustered all her power and strength to escape from the clutches of her insane narcissist father and narcissist-enabler mother.

    I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella

    Kinsella is a spectacularly good writer, and this is probably my favourite of her books (though The Undomestic Goddess is also a contender). This novel is totally irresistible: tightly and boldly plotted, hilarious, romantic, witty and clever. It is so well-written that you fall in love with the hero as if he were a real person, and root for the heroine as if she were your dearest friend. I love the way Kinsella's heroines get carried away with enthusiasm and make disastrously stupid decisions, then recognise their silliness when it's too late. I've Got Your Number is about a woman who finds a stranger's phone in a bin, and uses it as the perfect excuse to interfere in the poor chap's personal and professional life.

    Broken Harbour by Tana French

    The most gripping crime novel I have read for a long time. So richly imagined, so intriguing – I was bereft when I finished it and realised I would have to wait a year for the next Tana French book. A family is found dead in a house on a ghost estate in Ireland, and there are strange holes in the walls and ceilings of their house, and cameras set up as if to film the holes. What can possibly be going on? I was so desperate to learn the answer that I was glued to this novel from start to finish. French is an addictive storyteller and creates a vividly complete fictional universe that lives on in your mind long after you've finished reading. All four of her novels are brilliant, but this one is the best.

    The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

    A woman finds an envelope addressed to her by her husband. On it he has written "Only open this if I am dead." She asks him about it and he rather shiftily says: "Oh, er, it's nothing – don't open it." That is the initial hook, and it's a powerful one. What's great about this novel is that it makes you care absolutely equally about the plot and the characters. It's a moving story about relationships, redemption, guilt, love and just about every other important thing. At the same time, it's a perfectly paced mystery with a beautiful solution and a breathtakingly twisty final chapter.

    The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

    This should not be missed by any lover of fiction. It's a strangely old-fashioned story about a biographer who is working on the life story of a famous writer, and … anything else I say about it will not do it justice, because it cannot be summarised, and is so much more than the sum of its parts. It's an amazing mystery without being a crime novel, and is in every way an incredible book.

    Five Days by Douglas Kennedy

    The reason this novel made the list is because of one particular incident in it. Even better, the incident is a non-incident; Kennedy manages to make gasp-inducing drama out of something that doesn't even happen. It is one of the best plot moments in contemporary fiction, I think. The novel tells of a woman who is unhappily married and falls in love with a man who isn't her husband, but it is so unusual and felt so much truer than other books I have read on the same subject. I still gasp and tut and shake my head when I think about this particular plot point.

    Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks by John Curran

    Could there be a more inviting book title? This book is exactly what it sounds like: a guided tour of the Queen of Crime's journals and jottings, by her cleverest and most loyal fan, John Curran. It is fascinating to read about where the ideas for her novels came from, and to get a behind-the-scenes look at her working methods.

    Collected Sonnets by Edna St Vincent Millay

    I discovered Millay's Sonnets in the library of the University of Manchester when I was an undergraduate there. I was supposed to be looking for TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, and I found Millay by accident and fell in love with her witty, sharp, romantic verse. Instead of writing about whatever Eliot and Pound wrote about (and can I come back to you later about what exactly that was?), Millay wrote about sexy ex-boyfriends, and annoying current boyfriends, and how she refused to be virtuous and respectable. I renewed that library book regularly for the whole three years that I was at university, and then finally bought my own copy.

    The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin

    A very weird noir-ish American crime novel that starts with a man visiting his psychiatrist and claiming that various dwarves of his acquaintance are paying him to wear flowers in his hair. The shrink assumes he's insane, until his new patient takes him to a bar and introduces him to one of these dwarves, who says: "Oh, yes, it's quite true." Things get even stranger after that, and the novel keeps showing the reader that what is assumed to be impossible has in fact happened. It is a compulsive, atmospheric, imagination-challenging book and totally unique.

    Sophie Hannah's The Carrier won crime thriller of the year at the Specsavers National Book awards. She tweets as @sophiehannahcb1© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Written at night on a backlit handheld screen, Caddel's final collection of poems is infused with a love of the world

    Sometime in the late 1990s, the poet Richard Caddel got his hands on a PDA – a Psion handheld mobile with a backlit screen – and started to make notes for poems on it at night. He wrote them in the garden of his Durham home and another garden in Japan. The poems that resulted from this experiment form the 2003 collection, Writing in the Dark.

    These poems are, naturally enough, full of the sights and sounds of night-time – the moon, stars and planets form one thread of imagery that runs through the collection; the songs of nocturnal birds another, along with those other sounds of darkness – traffic, water, trains, hedge crickets and the laughter of girls in the lane behind the house. A third strand consists of images of breath and breathing, the fine thread of life itself.

    These poems draw our attention to small things – weeds, flowers, a short sequence devoted to bees and another to snails – and these details are held up to us not as examples of their kind, but as individual things, "each / to its own / line". It is an attention infused with love, both personal love for a wife and daughter and also a love of the world that demands and is nourished by that attention.

    It is also a perception made all the more acute by the dual darkness in which these poems took shape. The darkness that Caddel was writing in was not only literal, it was also metaphorical. In 1999, he was diagnosed with leukaemia. The book was edited by his wife, Ann, and published less than a year after his death on 1 April 2003. This other darkness surfaces from time to time, but lightly as in these lines from a poem called Distiller:

    Snuff this
    Dark varnish liquid, life.
    We love it. Let it go.

    You might be beginning to wonder what any of this has to do with comfort reading. To be honest, I'm not much given to the idea of turning to books for comfort; I prefer them to challenge me, to force me to think new thoughts or grapple with new information. However, I can find comfort in the fact that language and poetry can help a human being to make some kind of quiet sense of their own impending mortality. It's not that the poems in Writing in the Dark are in any real sense quietist; they are actively engaged with the world, as I hope I have made clear. Neither do they depend on any of the conventional consolations of religion. Caddel's faith, or as much of it as we need to know, is given in a few short lines:

    Breathe easy
    under star music.
    What you believe
    is true.

    And what these poems believe is that life persists. The book ends with the one poem from the Psion experiment that remained unfinished, Nocturnall, dedicated to Caddel's wife and daughter. In this poem, he twice quotes Pound's "What thou lovest well remains", but in this new context the phrase is drained of its rhetorical baggage and becomes a simple statement of human faith. Love endures; if ever a book could provide comfort, it is a book that enacts this belief. Writing in the Dark does.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    I met the painter Maurice Cockrill one evening in April 1968 in O'Connor's, the pub that had become the hub of the Liverpool poetry scene. He was then living in a room on the first floor at 64 Canning Street; Adrian Henri had the two floors upstairs. With fellow artists John Baum and Sam Walsh, Maurice was teaching in Liverpool College of Art's pre-diploma department.

    Maurice was also a poet. He gave readings, notably at the Traverse theatre during the 1968 Edinburgh festival, when he shared the platform with Alan Jackson, Pete Morgan and Brian Patten.

    His poems were published in the magazine Ambit, and two were included in Pete Roche's anthology Love, Love, Love. The poem Happy Burial, an elegy for his second marriage, became a blues song composed by Mike Evans and Mike Hart; Hart sung it piercingly on his album Mike Hart Bleeds.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Reader Claire McAlpine finds kindness and forgiveness in a book-length poem set on 'the feast of St Loneliness'

    This book-length poem is the antithesis of traditional Christmas cheer and will appeal to those who seek an escape from the kitsch and glitz of seasonal madness or who remember spending Christmas Day alone.

    Yet this illuminating work has been my comforting read for the festive season since I heard Durcan reading it aloud, returning to his 49-year-old self to recall a Christmas day he would have spent alone, were it not for the generosity of his bachelor friend Frank and the company of reawakened memories that had slumbered all year, but which now come at him in abundance, littering the pages of his book like twinkling Christmas decorations.

    His inviting me out of the blue
    Was a shock to the system.
    I expected him to say
    'If I don't see you before Christmas Day,
    I'll see you after Christmas Day.'

    The poem begins and ends with the biblical verse from Isaiah 62:4

    No longer are you to be named 'Forsaken',
    nor your land 'Abandoned',
    but you shall be called 'My Delight'
    and your land 'The Wedded'.

    Like bookends on a shelf, the repetition of the verse creates a frame within which the poem sits, revealing in a self-mocking, humorous way, the habits of a lifetime that have brought a father-of-two to this point in his life.

    He speaks of ingrained habits, like not being able to pass a church without blessing himself or to endure aircraft take-off and landings without making the sign of the cross. As he listens to Christmas Mass on the radio in the comfort of his bed, sipping his coffee and mumbling the familiar refrains, he wonders how people might spend this day in parts of the world he has visited.

    Objects that lie within reach encourage his reminiscences, reminding him of his travels, his father, past lovers: they include worry beads from the Arab quarter in Jerusalem, his father's rosary beads and book, his sole inheritance from the man who "died demented, alone and palely raving". He recalls a woman from Bulgaria, others from Brazil and the South Island of New Zealand, and a nun living in Rome.

    Every year I travel far away
    In search of the Abominable Snowman -
    That is to say, The Abominable Woman.
    Why? Why the Abominable Woman?
    Because she is all

    That is delicate, courteous, cordial.
    I have caught glimpses of her
    In Jerusalem, Dunedin, Rio de Janeiro,
    But only once in ten years
    Have I actually met her –

    We submit to the humorous, melancholic phrases that speak of being alone yet carry no sadness; they uplift in a quiet way. The poet's observations spill words onto the page and infuse in him an appreciation for the small details in life that are shared with the reader; he looks through the windows of others both physically and metaphorically, experiencing not envy but admiration.

    Christmas is the Feast of St Loneliness.
    I street-walk at night
    Looking in the windows
    Of other people's houses
    Assessing their Christmas decorations,
    Marking them out of ten.

    While some read to forget, others read to remember - the former in search of escape, the latter seeking comfort in the familiar. It is a rare volume that can satisfy both. As someone who rarely indulges the fleeting inclination to reread, I find myself breaking my own rule for Paul Durcan, retrieving this entertaining, subversive conversation between two men from the shelf every year.

    Christmas Day is a poem that has fun remembering, and carries with it an air of confession, sitting within that biblical verse denoting forgiveness. It is a gift Durcan bestows upon himself, and one from which he benefits as he narrates. It reminds us that humour, generosity and compassion are antidotes to isolation and despair and that reaching out to a friend with an invitation at this time of year can inspire exceptional results.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    From Sebastian Faulks's Jeeves and the Wedding Bells to Patrick Ness's More Than This to Alan Johnson's This Boy, Guardian readers pick their favourite reads of 2013

    Chris Allen, Buckingham

    Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Picador) was my favourite of the 11 books recently shortlisted for the Guardian first book award. It is based on the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland – for murdering her lover in 1828. Agnes is a well-developed character who you really feel for: you end up wanting her to escape her inevitable end. The book transmits a sense of the sparse difficult conditions in Iceland at the time, and the unfairness of a society that discriminated against both women and the servant class. It is an impressive first novel.

    Kate Anderson, Sheffield

    Grace McCleen's The Professor of Poetry (Sceptre) is a book about writing and love. What could be a rather hackneyed situation when a successful academic meets her old tutor and the flame is rekindled, is transformed into a moving story about ageing, alongside sensible advice about writing and prose to die for. Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs (Virago) is a very cross book but the reader is enthralled by constantly wondering whether this most unreliable of narrators is unhinged. In a year full of Jane Austen revisited Jo Baker's Longbourn (Doubleday) offers a different take on Pride and Prejudice. Modern in its sensibilities I doubt if I will ever be able to read Austen again in quite the same way.

    Jane Ayres, Chelmsford, Essex

    As a keen swimmer I enjoyed Pondlife by Al Alvarez (Bloomsbury). This meditation on the pleasures of year-round outdoor swimming, combined with reflections on the increasing limitations of age was inspirational. I also enjoyed The Marrying of Chani Kaufmanby Eve Harris(Sandstone Press). This book is a story of relationships defined by the ultra-orthodox Jewish faith and set in north-west London. Finally, I would recommendHHhH by Laurent Binet (Vintage). This gripping story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942 has a highly original narrative, in which the author seems to share with the reader his cogitations on what to include in the story.

    Sam Banik, London

    Booker-shortlisted The Lowland (Bloomsbury) by Jhumpa Lahiri is an elegantly written novel about two brothers growing up in a lowland suburb of south Calcutta in the 1950s and 60s; the younger becomes involved in the Naxalite movement and is killed by the police. The story shifts to the US and centres on the surviving brother, who has married his brother's wife, each living fractured lives within impermeable carapaces. Jesse Norman's Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (William Collins) is an excellent political biography of a towering Whig parliamentarian who conferred an ideological definition on the creed of conservatism. Burke appeared inconsistent in his support for the Indians, Irish Catholics and American colonists, although he denounced the French revolution. He was an apostle of liberty and a champion of authority, but abhorred any abuse of power.

    Patricia Bentley

    Anthony Marra's debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth) is set in war-torn Chechnya. A dystopian hinterland where terror reigns, and everyone is a potential suspect and afraid of ending up in the "Landfill" – a place of unspeakable horror. After eight-year-old Havaa sees her father abducted by the Russians, their neighbour Akhmed is determined to save her from the same fate. This is a beautifully crafted novel. The intricate narrative manifests how the fates of the characters are bound together and how Havaa comes to symbolise all that is good in a chaotic world.

    Chris Birch, London

    As the father of two children and a grandfather of four, I can imagine nothing more heartbreaking than having a child with severe cerebral palsy. But that is what happened to my friend Saira Shah, and her experience is the basis of an amazing novel, The Mouseproof Kitchen (Harvill Secker). The early part of the book, describing the birth and the following few days, in which she and her partner talk about abandoning the child, flying to Brazil and not leaving a forwarding address, is clearly autobiographical.However, the subsequent chapters describing the family's adventures in a mouse-infested farmhouse in the south of France are fictional, amusing and deeply moving. What shines forth from the book is that the author and her partner have learned a profound lesson in love from their disabled daughter, now five years old. When Jon Snow read the novel, he cried. So did I.

    Tim Blackburn, London

    Two books that have gripped me this year share the same translator: the excellent Philip Boehm. In Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall (Peirene Press) Izolda escapes from the Warsaw ghetto and sets off to search for her missing husband. Her adventures read like a novel but are based on a real-life Izolda. A miracle of compression, the pared-down, matter-of-fact sentences are set against the horrors she meets along the way. Herta Müller drew on her mother's experiences as an ethnic German in a Romania overrun by the Red Army in 1945. In The Hunger Angel (Portobello Books) the teenaged Leo is sent to a labour camp where if the cold and disease doesn't kill you, the angel that personifies hunger just might. We know Leo will survive, but what will be his place in the new world he returns to?

    Charles Boardman, Nottingham

    Sebastian Faulks has passed the test. His homage to Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells(Hutchinson Books) had me laughing aloud. I was also charmed by Antoine Laurain's The President's Hat(Gallic Books) in the final six pages of which the author has his own little joke. But my book of the year is Jonathan Buckley's breathtakingly clever novel, Nostalgia(Sort of Books). Set in a small Tuscan town it puts before us not only the expatriate protagonists but also the town itself, its history, its local residents and their life histories, all interspersed with scholarly digressions. Wonderful. Finally, Disraeli: or the Two Livesby Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is half the length of the usual political biography, and twice as entertaining.

    Stephen Booth, Sheffield

    I thoroughly enjoyed Alan Johnson's This Boy(Bantam Press), which vividly conveys the grinding poverty he endured growing up in London. Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave (Tinder Press) is as good as any of her previous books and evokes the mood created by the heatwave of 1976.

    Vidya Borooah, Belfast

    Hermione Lee's Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life(Chatto & Windus) is the biography Fitzgerald's small but devoted band of admirers have been waiting for since the novelist's death. Penelope Fitzgerald gained little recognition while she lived, was often overlooked, even regarded condescendingly, in her life and in her writing. In these times of relentless self-promotion, she had, as Rochefoucauld puts it, "a great ability to conceal her ability" – both her intelligence as a person and her talent as a writer. The biography sensitively uncovers the facts of an unusual life that Fitzgerald was reticent about and reveals the voluminous research she undertook, then used economically in novels that appear simple on the surface but are complex masterpieces.

    Phelim Brady, Normandy, Surrey

    With the dark humour of Nemirovsky and the humanity of a Camus, Constance Miles (Mrs Miles's Diary - Simon & Schuster) records the familiar stoicism of civilians in WWII but also the panic, financial ruin and the "Blitz Shock". Dazed, bombed-out Londoners arrive on foot in her Surrey village not knowing where they are. Miles gives a new perspective on how the war changed women: "This war is …particularly hard on women, who loathe it all." Instead of the liberation of women into men's work she records the press-ganging of women into seven day factory shifts and the toll that is taking on their health."

    Jerard Bretts, Milton Keynes

    The book I most enjoyed reading this year was The New York Stories by John O'Hara (Penguin Classics), a selection of the many superb short stories by this neglected American master. O'Hara's command of dialogue is incredible, as is his understanding of American social class. The best poetry collection I read was Poetry of the First World War (OUP Oxford), brilliantly edited, with illuminating notes, by Tim Kendall. As well as more well-known poets such as Owen and Sassoon it includes moving works by civilian and women poets, plus music hall and trench songs.

    Peter Brown, London

    Peter Hughes's Allotment Architecture (Reality Street) is deft and wryly observed, it abounds in "Ha!" moments. Try "Site Guide" written "for Heine, and the Caravan Club" with a tunnel to hell plunging through each pitch. Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's Hello, the Roses (New Directions) forms a synergy with her husband Richard Tuttle's postminimalist art. Her long lines teem with shapes and colour in an eastern/karmic approach to our place in nature and the universe. Simon Jarvis's Night Office (Enitharmon) is the first of five volumes, each containing 7,000 lines in eight-line stanzas. Although profound and sometimes difficult, reading, discussion and definition are available online.

    Cornelius Browne, Dungloe, County Donegal, Ireland

    Three novels grew wings this year, ascending to the upper skies. The first begins with smoke rising, though it's the earthliness of Harvest (Picador) that renders Jim Crace's swan song unearthly. At 1,000-odd pages, Richard House's The Kills (Picador) seems an unlikely bird to fly, yet the pages flap so quickly that it's gone before you realise. Finest, however, is Evie Wyld's All the Birds, Singing (Jonathan Cape), a book so beautifully written, so alive, so nail-bitingly suspenseful, that at points this reader felt as if the oxygen might be thinning.

    Sue Brooks, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire

    You don't have to be a fisherman to get caught by Charles Rangeley-Wilson's river in Silt Road (Chatto and Windus). I was enthralled by this ghost story, which is, ultimately, a lament so heart-wrenching I had to delay the ending. Tim Dee's Four Fields(Jonathan Cape) is a highly charged and provocative lesson in how to look at the world we have created. But the greatest joy of it lies in the language: playful, resonant and surprising on every page.

    Daniel Burbidge, London

    Homecoming by Susie Steiner (Faber) is a quiet compelling novel that focuses on the ordinary losses of life and takes the reader on a realistic journey into the emotional lives of the key characters. It will make you laugh and cry.

    Rosemary Burnett,Minehead, Somerset

    The title of Diana Souhami's book, Murder at Wrotham Hill(Quercus) is underwhelming until one discovers it is not on the crime shelves, but is classified as history. It charts the violent death, in 1946 rural Kent, of a middle-aged reclusive woman, at a time when Britain's celebratory mood is muted by privation and rationing. The author delves into patronising government propaganda, domestic minutiae and statistics, including shocking figures of illegitimate wartime births. A profile of the official hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, who not only carried out death penalties on home ground, but was also responsible for the double-figure "drops" after the Nuremberg trials, makes for an appropriate conclusion.

    Michael Callanan, Birmingham

    My reading year has been full of false starts and stalling so I was thankful to Patrick Ness for More Than This (Walker). It's moving, exciting, inventive and intelligent. Pitched as a novel for young adults, it not only proves positive for the future of writing but also for the future of reading. For pure sentence-by-sentence writing, both All That Is by James Salter (Picador) and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis(Penguin) constantly hit the mark with every sparing word and have a style all of their own.

    Keith Carabine, Canterbury

    Michael Irwin's The Skull and the Nightingale(HarperCollins) is a bold and witty appropriation of the conventions, style, and idiom of the 18th-century epistolary novel that brilliantly recreates the manners, modes of thought and conduct of the teeming world of London. The novel explores the "comical see-saw" of the flesh and the spirit through the sinister Gilbert who is a controlling rationalist, prudently afraid of "the Passions", and Fenwick who pursues his desires while struggling to avert the threats to his identity occasioned by his strange pact with his godfather.

    Pier Angelo Cavallina, Edinburgh

    Road to Valour by Aili and Andres McConnon (Anchor Canada) is the best read of the year. Its subject is the cycling legend Gino Bartali who risked everything to save the life of strangers in Nazi-occupied Italy, using his popularity as cover. It also shows a remarkable contrast with what cycling (and most sports) has become today in the light of doping scandals and other excesses. It is not about the bike, it is about what is just.

    Morag Charlwood, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex

    Magda by Meike Ziervogel (Salt Publishing), tells a tale of abusive mother-daughter relationships down three generations, culminating in Magda's murderous act in Hitler's bunker in the final days of Nazi Germany. The Puppet Boy of Warsaw by Eva Weaver (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), has two people caught up in the tide of events, whose inter-relationship over time unravels the position forced on them by historic circumstance. Tinder by Sally Gardner (Indigo), looks at the folly of war through a reworking of Hans Christian Andersen's fable of the Tinderbox.

    Dawn Churchill, Belper, Derbyshire

    I loved two new fiction books; The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw (Atlantic Books), a surreal, yet real, love story set in rural America about an unusual girl who falls in love with a man who is half thunderstorm, and Various Pets Alive and Dead (Penguin) by Marina Lewycka, which concerns a 1980s leftwing commune in Yorkshire and what has happened to the characters since. My favourite non-fiction book was Strands by Jean Sprackland (Vintage), a lovely natural history book about the author's discoveries along one section of seashore and my favourite poetry book was Ovid's Heroines by Clare Pollard, a fascinating translation of Ovid's less-known work from the point of view of the women abandoned by Greek heroes.

    John Irving Clarke, Wakefield

    A Family Behind Glassby Matthew Hedley Stoppard (Central Books), uses inventive language and striking imagery, and is one of the most arresting poetry collections of the year. Time and time again the reader is halted and forced to ask the question, what did he just say? "Afternoons cartwheel, flashing midnight's knickers at me." Stoppard charts the perilous path that lies between childhood and the responsibilities of parenthood and some tragic narratives that lie along the way. Of Kimberley who placed her licked finger on a lightbulb socket with the result that "bingo balls halted and the whole hall gasped/ in silence." Of the unnamed toddler in the park who watched her grandfather clatter to the grass "like a tired ironing board".

    Marge Clouts, Longborough, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire

    Leaving Alexandria (Canongate) implies Cavafy, but the title mainly refers to Richard Holloway's Alexandria, near Glasgow, where this former bishop of Edinburgh grew up. His lucid memoir moves from his youthful Christian dedication to a fearlessly honest reappraisal. Bad Machine (Bloodaxe) is George Szirtes' latest poetry collection, containing several canzones, that intimate lyrical form with only five end-of-the-line words throughout, of which the title poem is one of the most striking. Paekakariki Press has found a deeply sensitive poet, Ann Allen, whose first collection, Michelangelo Can Paint an Angel brings original reflections on significant lines of poetry, as well as finely tuned personal observations.

    Felicity Cobley, Swansea

    Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (Simon and Schuster) is an astonishing, moving, sometimes harrowing account of many different kinds of families and many different kinds of love. Donna Tartt may only write a book once every 10 years or so but The Goldfinch (Little, Brown) has been well worth waiting for.

    Julian Conway, Cambridge

    I enjoyed The Explorer by James Smythe (HarperCollins), a science-fiction nightmare that is short on physics, but strong on tension and metaphysics. The Dune's Twisted Edge, Journeys in the Levant (The University of Chicago Press) is by Gabriel Levin, better known as a poet. In these journeys to obscure corners of the Middle East in search of poetics ancient and modern, he cites sources in Hebrew, Arabic, Greek and French that make you realise you are not as well read as you thought. For poetry I choose The Mining Road by Leanne O'Sullivan (Bloodaxe Books). This third collection by the Irish poet is full of luminous imagery and sometimes a gentle, almost wistful, touch, as in "Brigie": "When you smile in your sleep / I think of the seal's tail / whispering above the waves, / slipping back again into the deep." A joy.

    Michael Copp, Sudbury, Suffolk

    The Ancient Amber Routes: Travels from Riga to Byzantiumby Mara Kalnins (Petergailis) charts the quest of an intrepid traveller, a dedicated and scholarly researcher into numerous fields, as she traces the origins and development of the trade in the much sought after treasure of amber. It is also travel writing of a high order. She not only succeeds in making us see and share her experiences of the places she visits, but also achieves the more elusive goal of conveying the spirit of these places. Underpinning the book is a subtext: a love-letter to Latvia, its people, culture and traditions.

    Jane Crozier, Queen Camel, Somerset

    Jacquetta Hawkes's A Land(HarperCollins) tells the story of Britain from four billion years ago to present times. The narrative spirals outwards and backwards to evoke, first, a world without seasons or colour, then the emergence of plant and animal life, then the time of human habitation, ending with a series of "prospects" of Britain which I think are among the best 20th-century nature writing.

    Chris Culpin, Castle Cary, Somerset

    As a history teacher, I have taught the Holocaust many times, but it is literature that deepens and convinces in a way that textbooks don't. Chasing the King of Hearts, by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm (Peirene), is a quest story. Izolda and her new husband Shayek are Jews in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. When he is suddenly arrested by the Gestapo and disappears, Izolda sets out to find him. She dyes her hair, tries to lose her "Jewish" mannerisms and changes her name. Although she is often brought near to the edge of survival and is deported to Auschwitz, occasional acts of kindness and her own quick wits support her on her journey. The power of the writing, in short, present tense bursts gives a surprising lightness to this compelling narrative.

    Adam Czerniawski, Monmouth

    Friedrich Reck's Diary of a Man in Despair (New York Review Books), begins in 1937 when this German novelist and scholar foresees the catastrophe to be inflicted by Hitler, that nonentity who "wears his cap like a Berlin tram-driver". Reck concentrates his fury on German industrialists for supporting Hitler and, tantalisingly, gives special attention to IG Farben, that complex that drew its workforce from the neighbouring Auschwitz,. Many pages are devoted to grim and humorous accounts of the deteriorating physical and moral situation, brought about by the vulgar Prussians invading Reck's beloved Bavaria. Reck captures antisemitism in a story of a Jewish woman forced out of her apartment by an SS officer; savagery in the east is recorded mercilessly and ecstatically by a Wehrmacht observer of air-raids in Poland. Uncompromising to the end, Reck died in Dachau for refusing to join the Volkssturm militia.

    Catherine Davies, Belfast

    Glenn Patterson's Mill for Grinding Old People Young(Faber) comes as an antidote to 2012 when Belfast was Titanicked out. It is a powerful novel about a city in the mid-19th century caught up in the excitement of prosperity. The story might have been set in Glasgow or Liverpool, other Victorian centres of industrialisation, but Patterson captures the deadpan rhythms and acerbity of Belfast dialogue. The novel explores the dilemmas facing locals consorting with migrants. In essence, it considers what made those great Victorian cities great.

    Alison Doig, Burwash Weald, East Sussex

    Far from the Tree(Chatto & Windus), Andrew Solomon's exceptional study of what it is like to have a child who is "different", illuminates the essence of parenthood, and is profound and moving. I also loved Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (Doubleday), an exploration of the sheer randomness of how we are who we are. Finally, Jo Walton's Among Others (Corsair) is for anyone who has ever wanted to "climb into a book and pull it up over your head". A wonderful tribute to the value of reading – and libraries.

    Paul Eastwood, Stamford, Lincolnshire

    I rarely feel comfortable reading a book after seeing the film, but on three occasions this year my fears were confounded; perhaps because the books' first person narratives get inside the characters in a way film never can. Broken by Daniel Clay (Fourth Estate), has a most indignant narrator, an 11-year-old girl called Skunk, trying to come to terms with violence and cruelty in her suburban neighbourhood. The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (Other Press), with a fine translation by John Cullen, takes us to Argentina at the time of state terror. The voice is of a retired deputy clerk in the judiciary. Paperboy by Pete Dexter (Delta) is set in 1960s Moat County, Florida, a time and place when civil rights were hard to find. A college drop-out, Jack James, is our narrator in this harrowing story of a search for justice.

    Gareth Evans, London

    The emergence of new small presses committed to the book as artefact has generated an excitement this year. The activities of Corbel Stone Press and Test Centre across all forms (journal, book, chapbook, pamphlet, vinyl, cd, cassette … ) have provided a particular pleasure; the former passionate about the arts and ethics of place, the latter re-energising the countercultural nexus around Iain Sinclair, Chris Petit and Stewart Home (it has put out many of the 18 publications Sinclair has released this year). A delight also to find Ken Worpole and Jason Orton's important text and image essay The New English Landscape (Field Station); Vagabond Witness (Zero Books), Paul Gordon's beautifully written advocacy of the great Victor Serge; and the wondrous book-length concertina poem/portrait collaboration Correspondences by Anne Michaels and painter Bernice Eisenstein (Bloomsbury).

    David Finch

    Lukas Erne's Shakespeare and the Book Trade (Cambridge University Press) is a welcome follow-up to his admirable Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (2003). Meticulously researched it offers perceptive insights into the reception of printed Shakespeare, his publishers and the early owners of Shakespeare's quarto playbooks.

    Caroline Ford, Worcester

    By chance I read back-to-back two of the saddest stories imaginable: both about losing children and forbidden love. At times they were so moving that it physically hurt to read and I cried. Julie Myerson's Then (Vintage) tells post-apocalyptic breakdown where nothing is safe and no one to be trusted. I think I have always underrated Myerson – this novel seems to me a great achievement. She takes the ordinary and translates it into something stark and dangerous. Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark(Picador) explores a landscape of such darkness it takes your breath away. Acts of random violence and kindness co-exist in both novels as the characters criss-cross each other's lives and the bleak landscapes.

    Chris Ford, Manchester

    The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr edited by Andrew Schlesinger and Stephen Schlesinger (Random House) are a great complement to his Journals: 1952-2000 (Penguin Press). They also offer an insight into how traumatising the Kennedy assassinations were at the time – something we can almost obscure with hindsight, revisionism, and conspiracy theories. For further eloquent and moving testimony read the entry for 25 November 1963 in The Leonard Bernstein Letters edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press), the contents of which give another overview of a liberal American century. For another revealing epistolary American journey from the Great Plains and beyond The Selected Letters of Willa Cather edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (Knopf) will take you there.

    David Fothergill, Pocklington, East Riding of Yorkshire

    It's been a privilege to have read consecutively two exceptionally well crafted novels – Jim Crace's Harvest (Picador) and Colum McCann's Transatlantic (Bloomsbury). Crace's unidentified medieval village in Harvest is the setting for a timeless story of fear, cruelty and compassion. In Transatlantic McCann cunningly conceals from readers the true intent behind various factually based incidents linking North America and Ireland over three centuries.

    Andy Freeman, Grimsby

    Helen Mort's first poetry collection, Division Street (Chatto & Windus) was youthful, surprising, sustaining and quietly haunted me. The restlessness of youth, the landscape of the north, parents, class, the 1984 miners' strike (over long before she was born), and peripheral glimpses of the animal world are some of the poetic concerns of a collection that never becomes parochial or narrowly autobiographical.

    Barbara Fry, Street, Somerset

    May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes (Granta), is a sharply observant, if slightly fantastical, satire on modern family life that made me laugh out loud. Canada by Richard Ford (Bloomsbury) makes us reflect on how we react to life-changing events and whether we can influence the outcomes. Irma Voth by Miriam Toews (Faber) depicts life in a Mexican Mennonite community and tells of 19-year-old Irma who sews words such as "lust" and "agony" into her dress. Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen and Unwin) deals with travel as tourism against travel to escape persecution but ultimately asks the question about what belonging means, increasingly relevant in a world where large numbers of people are being displaced.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    John Crace's satirical Digested read columns have become a Guardian institution, reducing the most newsworthy books of the year to an essential 600 words.

    Here, he looks at just one year of the TS Eliot's correspondence and evokes the life of a poet and publisher, measured out in putdowns and paperclips.

    The Guardian's poetry editor, Nicholas Wroe, joins us in the studio to make the case for a poet as important in the 21st century as he was when he published The Wasteland in 1922.

    Reading list

    The Letters of TS Eliot volume four: 1928-1929 edited by Valerie Eliot (Faber)
    John Crace's digested Eliot – as it was written

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    The death of the Velvet Underground leader stole a musical icon, but that of the poet felt like a more personal loss

    Two of my real, heart-held culture heroes died in 2013. Lou Reed was the soundtrack of my adolescence and I still listen to his music. He's the reason I find meaning in the art of Andy Warhol, who discovered the Velvet Underground and was admired by its leaders, Reed and John Cale.

    When I was 16, I literally thought I was the only Velvet Underground fan in the world. It was an obscurantist obsession, at a time when I should have been listening to Joy Division like every other miserable teenager in the northwest. I did listen to them, but I could hear in Reed's voice that he had a mainline into a place of sin and mystery and fearful magic.

    Now it turns out there were loads of other fans of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground all along, and I was not alone.

    Yet oddly enough, when the news of Reed's death broke, I felt nothing like the shock or sense of loss I might have expected to be torn by. I don't think I would have been especially upset if he died back in 1982, even, when I was listening to him all the time.

    The fact is that mourning Reed seems a bit besides the point. In his best songs he presents himself as dead already. Heroin and I'm Waiting for the Man are letters from the end of the world. By rights, to judge from their lyrics, he ought to have passed away years ago. The extremism of his vision is not really captured by bland praise of Perfect Day. Reed's is a majestic voice but somehow not one that changes how you live, unless it inspires you to put a spike into your vein.

    No – the death that saddened me most is Seamus Heaney's, for it is the silencing of a voice that could heal and resurrect and move mountains. I discovered this poet a bit later than I listened to Reed – and in the classroom. Then at university I went to a reading by him that I can still feel the soft power of.

    Heaney's poetic voice is unpretentious, and yet tremendously knowledgable and sophisticated. He introduced me to Dante with his luminous translation of the story of Ugolino.

    I have this deep feeling that Heaney is one of the greatest poets in the English language. His words go down like honey, like the conversation of the gods. Easy and profound.

    It is Heaney's voice that is the deepest loss. A warmth was in it and I'm feeling the chill now.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    From Lionel Shriver's Big Brother to Jim Crace's Harvest, and from Ruth Rendell's No Man's Nightingale to Iain Banks' The Quarry, Guardian readers pick their favourite reads of 2013

    Richard Gilyead, Saffron Walden, Essex

    I am recommending Richard Ford's Canada (Bloomsbury) to everyone this year: An extraordinary story of the children of inadvertent bank robbers and the effect that this crime has on their lives. A librarian friend thenintroduced me to Wallace Stegner, an American author whose Crossing to Safety (Penguin Classics) turned out to be an excellent novel about the lifelong friendship of two couples. The real joy is to find an unfamiliar author with an extensive back catalogue. I must also mention Dark Eden (Corvus) by Chris Beckett, which won the 2013 Arthur C Clarke award, for the unforgettable images of a new society born out of an interstellar accident. Finally, a fond farewell to the great Iain Banks and thanks for The Quarry (Little, Brown): two fingers to cancer and a cracking read.

    Tricia Golinski, Frome, Somerset

    Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Portobello Books) is presented as a story, but it turns out to be all true, even the names, as told to reporter Katherine Boo. It is a shocking description of the lives of residents of Annawadi, Mumbai, a slum by a sewage lake near the airport, surrounded by luxury hotels and billboards advertising floor tiles said to be "beautiful forever". In Dark Eden (Corvus2012), Chris Beckett describes the descendants of two explorers who were marooned in a strange land with no sun, only a dim light produced by plants. Because there was necessarily inbreeding, some of them have deformities: claw feet or "bat faces", and many die young. Eventually they find remains indicating that there is no hope of rescue from Earth, so they are on their own, and will have to work out for themselves things like "lecky-tricity" and waterproof clothing. I loved Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber), a novel about climate change and farm wife Dellarobia's separation from her husband in America's Bible belt.

    Nicola Gooch, York

    Lionel Shriver never disappoints and Big Brother(HarperCollins) is no exception. Infused with Shriver's razor-sharp wit, Big Brother centres on Pandora and her brother, Edison, and their struggle to get him to shed the enormous amount of weight he has gained since she last saw him. I was riveted by Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard (Faber). It's a tale of a scientist, her lover and the crime of which they stand accused. I didn't see the twist in the tale on the penultimate page, which caused me to shout out loud. Set in northern Canada, Shelter (Virago) by Frances Greenslade is the beautiful, poignant story of two sisters essentially left to fend for themselves after their father dies and their mother goes off in search of work. A great cross-over novel which I intend to share with my teenage daughters.

    Norman Goodman, London

    Tim Dee's Four Fields (Jonathan Cape) is memorable nature writing, beautifully written with heart-rending images. His thought-provoking "walk" across the Chernobyl exclusion zone left me drained. A BBC Radio producer, Dee was instrumental in broadcasting Owen Sheers' Pink Mist (Faber). This "dramatic poem" powerfully presents three young Bristol soldiers who are deployed to Afghanistan. Through authentic dialogue and narratives and those of a mother, a wife and a partner, we experience the awful reality of modern warfare and its effects. The Industrial Revolution is brought alive through the words of hundreds of workers' "little naritive"s in Emma Griffin's Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution (Yale University Press). Unique insights into what it was to have been part of that revolution.

    Catriona Graham, Edinburgh

    My big book of the year has been Geoffrey Parker's Global Crisis (Yale University Press) on the disastrous, war-torn 17th century. It fills in gaps, gives different perspectives – not least on Scotland during the Civil War – and opens new areas of history to explore. Jean-Pierre Ohl's The Lairds of Cromarty (Dedalus) is a bulging carrier bag of a novel, a bibliophilic jeu d'esprit, containing the best literary rugby match since Tom Brown's Schooldays, a homage to the International Brigades and a convoluted love story. It's not just the Viennese artistic bourgeoisie Thomas Bernhard skewers in Woodcutters (Faber) – his characters could as easily be Scots or Mancunians. A lack of precise location in Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador) makes it timeless. The speed with which the small community breaks apart under pressure – see Global Crisis for umpteen historical examples – reminds us how thin is the veneer of civilisation.

    Rod Green, Colchester

    Seldom Seen by Sarah Ridgard (Windmill Books). Away from the rosy second homes, the yachts and the gastropubs are the first homers of East Anglia still grinding out a bare existence in the far-flung, isolated, inward-looking communities of these rural counties. Ridgard's evocation of daily life here is so realistic that you can almost feel the biting wind blowing across the flatlands form the North Sea. The main character is a teenager called Desiree who comes across the body of a baby in a ditch. From this singular horrific find, the truth about the locals and their past histories are revealed in a haunting depiction of everyday life under a canopy of grey desperation tinged with flashes of jollity.

    Matthew Greenberg, London

    Homecoming by Susie Steiner (Faber). I try not to make a habit of bursting into tears during take-off and landing but that moment came during an easyJet flight at a particular point of this touching novel. And I was to repeat this from time to time as I turned the pages. It's a novel about family and relationships – the need for intimacy and reinforcement from family and yet the desire to reject and be separate from it, and how expectations, hopes and needs often reside internally and are rarely openly articulated.

    Kate Gunning, London

    The most unputdownable book of the year for me was Tom Watson and Martin Hickman's superb account of the phone-hacking affair, Dial M for Murdoch (Penguin). I thought that Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Portobello) deserved every ounce of praise heaped upon. A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgård (Vintage) is the second novel in the author's My Struggle series. They have been a publishing sensation in Norway; I can't recommend them highly enough. Read the two volumes back to back, then start counting the days until the third one comes out next spring … Finally, Lawrence Osborne's novel The Forgiven (Hogarth) shows two cultures clashing in the heat of the Moroccan desert. Osborne's writing is dazzlingly brilliant, and he has produced a hugely elegant thriller that builds to a shattering conclusion.

    Marissa Hansen, Harpenden, Hertfordshire

    Homecoming by Susie Steiner (Faber). I was engaged, by this debut novel by Susie Steiner, from the very first page. It made me laugh, cry and had to stay up late to finish it – all the qualities I look for in a good book. I can't wait to read her next novel and would highly recommend this one to others.

    John Harding, Winchester

    Alan Johnson's moving childhood autobiography This Boy (Bantam Press) of poverty, deprivation and stunted education, buttressed by mother and sisterly love in postwar London, reminds us that some politicians – increasingly a minority – can speak with authority and experience of the gap in understanding between the rich and the poor. The Broken Road (John Murray) is the long-awaited third volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor's journey from the Rhine to Istanbul. His final notebooks have been skillfully edited by Artemis Copper and Colin Thubron. Its magical prose takes the young PLF through Bulgaria and Roumania with spell binding encounters of the young , old and eccentric. Lastly, even more to be savoured than PLF, is the new novel from octogenarian James Salter- All That Is (Picador).Salter takes his publisher hero from the Pacific war arena to late age, heading for the sunset in Venice. On the way we are treated to his relationships with wives and lovers that open and fold against a background of American and European settings over decades. Salter is a master of sentences, that shimmer and shock you such that you pause in sheer admiration at his descriptive powers.

    Sheila Harvey, Twickenham

    The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (HarperCollins) is told in the first person by Matthew, in his late teens at the start of the novel, who wryly describes his treatment by social services and mental health practitioners as he copes with the vicissitudes of his life and his illness. It sounds bleak but it is funny, fascinating and beautifully written.

    Jude Haslam, Richmond, North Yorkshire

    The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Puffin). Green has tackled the very sad, sensitive subject of young cancer with such skill and humanity. I was bowled over by this book, and by Hazel and Augustus, the two American teenage characters. They both were such real, vivid young people, very much of their time and generation. The story deals with coping with physical adversity, fear of death, and also falling in love and loss. Relationships between teenage friends and their parents are all treated with thoughtful respect. I wholeheartedly recommend it for any age of reader from 15 years up.

    Martin Hills, Chichester

    In Javier Marias's mesmerising The Infatuations(Hamish Hamilton), the narrator Maria's compulsive daily observation of a model couple in a Madrid cafe morphs from romance to murder mystery and on into metaphysics. The magic of Marias's writing derives from the fluidly shifting conjectures, qualifications and modifications of his prose, unravelling individual perception into nuanced medications on love, time and death. The result is a magisterial evocation of emotional flux and preoccupation with the ordering containment of art. In a 2013 Guardian interview Marias stated that the novelist's function was "a way of imparting, recognition of things that you didn't know you knew". There is a quality of fantastic normality in his novels as he dredges up the familiar from bizarre, claustrophobic, almost gothic events and obsessions.

    John Horder, London

    I have an interest to declare in recommending William May's Stevie Smith and Authorship (Oxford English Monograph). It mentions favourably Stevie - A Motley Selection, which I co-edited for the Greville Press in 2002. It records the lengthy struggle she had throughout the 1940s and 50s with male "editors" including Cyril Connolly and John Lehmann. Aunty Beeb and Michael Horovitz ignited the recognition she so craved in the 60s til her death. Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald (Chatto & Windus) is irresistible. It is both heart-opening and -breaking. It is especially intuitive about her poetically unpredictable last book, The Blue Flower, which I have been re-reading with pleasure. It has just been re-issued by Fourth Estate with an introduction by Candia McWilliam. Adam Phillips's Missing Out (Penguin) is "in Praise of the Unlived Life". It is as much about what he calls "close reading" as about blurring the lines between psychotherapy and literature. Lastly, Tove Jansson's Sculptor's Daughter (Sort of Books) is by another amazingly unpredictable writer. It will bring much pleasure to all of the "Finn Family Moomintroll" from nine to 95.

    Bob Horne, Halifax, West Yorkshire

    The Mandate of Heaven by Tim Murgatroyd (Myrmidon) completes an epic trilogy of conflict, culture and passion in medieval China as the brutal Mongol occupation of the Middle Kingdom threatens civilised ancient tradition. Its imagery is gently poetic and complements the robustness of the narrative. Far away in time and space; contemporary in issues, character and relationships. Outstanding. The reissue of Stoner by John Williams (Vintage) has brought deserved acclaim. It is the deeply affecting story of a University of Missouri lecturer whose life is brushed throughout by misfortune and injustice. William Stoner stands alone and dignified in the face of a cruelly unearned destiny. His self-effacement is truly heroic. Iain Crichton Smith's New Collected Poems (Carcanet) is a continuing delight. Referencing the whole of the Western canon in range and themes, his poems return frequently to the profound influence of his island upbringing on Lewis. Control, skill, humility, eloquence. Marvellous.

    John Howes, London

    July 1914 by Sean McMeekin (Icon Books) gave a day-to-day account of the toing and froing between the chancelleries of Europe from 28 June that year, when the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, and 4 August, when the German invasion of Belgium brought Britain into the war. My second favourite book was The Beauty and the Sorrow (Profile Books) in which Peter Englund details the experiences of 20 men and women – British, French, Belgian, German Austrian, Hungarian, Serbian, Russian, American, and even a Venezuelan – caught up in the conflict. The contrast between the statesmen's cynicism and the double-dealing – that resulted in nine million deaths, the Russian Revolution and, arguably, the second world war – and the intimate stories of the horrors in all the theatres of the war should make a peace-lover of the fiercest warmonger.

    Angela Huskisson

    A Possible Life by Sebastian Fauks (Vintage), a novel in five parts, is a truly remarkable book that acts as a prism of people's lives through which we are allowed many glimpses. The stories range in setting from 1822 to 2029, but occur in no particular order, as connections of being are sought and life-changing choices made. In a true Faulks masterstroke, he takes you inside the skin of each individual character until you breathe their breath, inhabit their minds and experience their inevitable fates, with an inability to change their course of action, however much you wish you could. He offers an overall omniscience that makes you sigh once the die is cast. But thoughts still circulate even after the final curtain falls, allowing a whiff of "what if" to those still living.

    Dan Jenkins, Leigh on Sea, Essex

    Fearfully overlooked fiction this year is best summed up by the criminal inattention given to Byron Easy by Jude Cook (William Heinemann). It's a novel in the grand, garrulous tradition of Amis, Bellow and Roth. A bitter tale of a hard-knock life by a narrator too clever by half, yet with a genuine reason to view the world askance. We meet him on a train about to leave London for Leeds, and along the way he unfolds his screwed-up life.

    Simon Jenner, Hove, East Sussex

    Fernando Pessoa's Philosophical Essays (Contra Mundum Press) – fresh from his seemingly inexhaustible posthumous trunk – presents early theoretical work ascribed to two English heteronyms. The heady, Bradleyan world his exact contemporary Eliot inhabited for a time infused their later writing: Eliot with J. W. Dunne; Pessoa with his cast of speculative writing. David Pollard's Self-Portraits (Waterloo) is a virtuoso series of imaginary self-portraits, featuring artists from ancient Egypt to now. It stretches Pollard's linguistic brilliance with human resonance, confirming his unique place in British poetry. In Mario Petrucci's anima (Nine Arches), the tensile delicacy of Petrucci's modernist love lyrics springs back with an English baroque, Miltonic surprise. Between line-breaks rests a declamatory silence tested to snapping. This is major work to cast shadows.

    Kate Johnson, Mirfield

    AL Kennedy's On Writing (Jonathan Cape) acted both as autobiography and a series of lessons on how to write. It should be mandatory reading for all people on creative writing courses. If one imagines the life of a writer as a fey dreamer, read this and think again. By comparison, Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby (Granta) is a rather eccentric set of essays and sometimes inconsequential stories covering illness, her mother's Alzheimer's disease and travelling and living in Iceland. This apparently unwelcoming melange should not work but does because it is held together by such beautiful and sublime prose.

    Martin Jones, Barnet, Hertfordshire

    Derek B Miller's Norwegian by Night (Faber), ostensibly a crime novel, is a book about many things. An American octogenarian and an eight-year-old Balkans boy, both traumatised by the death of a loved one, are on the run in a series of unlikely vehicles and in a country whose language neither speaks. It sounds bleak, or plain weird, but this is a book flecked with great wit and driven by a humanity that refuses to be ground down by the brutality of others. Memory and guilt are also major characters in this beautifully written and deeply insightful book about ageing. It reminds us that older people also have their dreams and can still be heroes. Also, read Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis (Faber). Just do it.

    Cyril Kavanagh, Kingston, Surrey

    Music at Midnight by John Drury (Allen Lane) is a superb biography of poet-priest George Herbert. Not only does Drury shine new light on Herbert's life and times but it provides a searching and illuminating analysis of his poetry. More accomplished is how the author manages to stress the modern nature of Herbert's sensibility and the way his poetry agonises over issues of faith, love and death. The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945by Richard Overy(Allen Lane) is a magnificent study of the bombing campaign in Europe during the second world war and approaches its subject with a balance that is truly remarkable. The exhaustive research is impressive, with many statistics concerning the efficacy of the campaign on Nazi Germany but it is the discussion of the moral questions involved in the destruction of cities and the effects upon the civilian populations that makes this work so compelling. The issues are germane today; the book should be required reading in the White House and Downing Street. Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner (Allen Lane). Gardiner's gifts both as a performer and as a writer enlighten this study of Bach both as a man and musician. In very clear prose he explores the influences upon Bach and his everyday world and in so doing is able to bring a fresh approach to the music and the nature of Bach's creative powers. This work deserves to be a classic in Bach scholarship, for it achieves the goal of opening new windows of understanding into Bach's genius and deepens our appreciation of his music.

    Sue Keable, Cambridge

    I loved Rachel Joyce's Perfect (Doubleday) in spite of – or maybe because of – its strangely moving quirkiness, and was moved to tears by Elizabeth Day's Home Fires (Bloomsbury). I also enjoyed two outstanding new works from the pen of the amazing Ruth Rendell, No Man's Nightingale (Hutchinson), which sees a long-retired Inspector Wexford abandoning – temporarily – Gibbon in order to help Mike Burden solve a crime in Kingsmarkham, and also (under her pseudonym of Barbara Vine) the almost unbearably moving and superbly written Child's Child (Viking). This uses the "story within a story" technique to tell of families affected by illegitimacy and homosexuality in the early years of the last century.

    Terry Kelly, Jarrow, Tyne and Wear

    After more than half a century of creativity, the work of Bob Dylan still attracts as much commentary as Shakespeare. Ian Bell's Time Out Of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan (Mainstream Publishing) adds gold to that critical mountain. The second volume of an acclaimed study, the book is by turns waspish, incisive and illuminating.

    Peter King, Bexhill on Sea, East Sussex

    Scott Fotheringham, The Rest is Silence (Goose Lane Editions). I got hold of this book on the basis of reviews online, and it's one of the finest works of fiction I've read this year. In his debut novel, Canadian Scott Fotheringham juxtaposes two narratives, one set in New York in the recent past dealing with the development of a plastic-eating bacteria, and the other set in the (novel's) present relating the narrator's life in the (beautifully and evocatively described) Nova Scotia woods whilst the bacteria wreaks havoc in the wider world. Both narratives thoughtfully explore memory and how we are formed by it. I was not expecting the novel's ending, but it made perfect sense of all that had gone before.

    Jo Kirk, Belper, Derbyshire

    I vicariously walked the Pennine Way in the company of Simon Armitage by reading Walking Home (Faber). I trekked in tranquility with Mr Armitage all the way to near Edale. It was a very funny read. I also read A Tale For The Time Being (Canongate) by Ruth Ozeki. A harrowing story, ambitious in scope, with a time frame from WW2 to the Japanese Tsunami of 2011. Pacifism, Buddhism and environmentalism are all included in the story, which centres around a bullied teenage girl living in Japan. Well worth reading.

    John Lancaster, Peterborough

    Googling Guy Davenport produces The Pound Vortex, a lovely reading, with appropriate pictures, of a classic Davenport essay in which he constructs an elegy for Modernism with world war one as the gravedigger. He made an annual visit to Pound in the mental hospital, wrote the first thesis on Joyce to be accepted by Oxford [1950] but, unlike many American literary critics, he was also a classicist; the range of his reading is astonishing and he always makes the most enlivening connections between writers, philosophers and artists. Hugh Kenner called him the "best explicator of the arts alive"; he's no longer alive, but his essays are still vivid,surprising and a catalyst for years of exciting reading. He should be better known. The Guy Davenport Reader [Counterpoint], published this year, offers 10 essays, but 40 are in The Geography Of The Imagination, still available on Amazon.

    Kate Latham, Gunnislake, Cornwall

    Now so old I have to make a note and summary of the books I have read to avoid re-purchase, I note that AL Kennedy's On Writing (Jonathan Cape) has a "BOTY so far" tag and the comment "Terrific read about the process of writing a novel via a blog, reassuring, and excellent essays". The next BOTY was Jane Gardam's Last Friends(Little, Brown), which I read at a single sitting and has been the most enjoyable read of the year. I felt I was catching up with old friends and ended it with a sense of loss and mourning for that wonderful rivalrous group of people I have come to know and love. The next book on my list, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fourth Estate) was also tagged BOTY. This is a big book about big issues in which the politics of hair care cleverly provide a humorous but profound leitmotif.

    Gerard Lee, Dublin

    "What kind of dead man are you? Turning up all over the place. The plan was to disappear." In The Marlowe Papers, a novel in verse by Ros Barber (Sceptre) Christopher Marlowe refuses to lie down and die. Whether or not you believe his life ended in Deptford in 1593, this beautifully crafted, authentic and thrilling read artfully conjures Shakespeare's – sorry, Marlowe's – London, as Barber impressively combines the skill of both poet and dramatist. Young Skins by Colin Barrett (Stinging Fly) is a stunning first collection by a young Irish writer, with characters so vivid you'll think they've passed through your living room.

    Terry Lempriere, Warrington

    The book that really moved me was Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape): his enduringly elegant style gripped as the book went from ballooning and an unlikely love story to the emotionally charged descriptions of his reaction to the death of his wife. In the summer came The Quarry by Iain Banks (Little, Brown), the last novel by a wonderful writer: part of the subject matter, cancer, was a sad coincidence, but the man was on top form with his piercing wit and precise observations about families, relationships and the world – he certainly did not go gentle into that good night. Finally Holloway by Robert Mcfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards (Faber) is a beautifully conceived study of a small, hidden piece of English natural history – words and illustrations combine to evoke a vivid portrait.

    Steven Long, Manchester

    Red or Dead by David Peace (Faber). By resurrecting and celebrating the life and football times of Bill Shankly, Peace suggests that Shankly's kind of socialist work ethic bred success, and created in Liverpool FC a communal spirit that at times transcended the selfishness of the times that inevitably led to the rise of Margaret Thatcher. In 2013 there could be no better memorial for Shankly (or Thatcher).

    Kev McCready, Liverpool

    Red Or Dead (Faber and Faber) was derided by the critics, but it's an important literary novel about determination, an England on fire and the glories of Liverpool FC. Stephen Collins's cartoon is always the best thing in Guardian Weekend, so The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (Jonathan Cape) was a dark, Burtonesque bedtime story for warped adults such as myself.

    Caroline McElwee, London

    I couldn't put down, and didn't want to finish Airmail: Letters of Robert Bly and Thomas Tranströmer (Bloodaxe), for the beautiful friendship that evolved, and the complexities of language as exposed by translation. Orkney by Amy Sackville (Granta) had a spare, mesmeric quality. Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer (Chatto and Windus) is an epistolary debut novel, read in two sittings. An extraordinary non-fiction read was George Monbiot's Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (Allen Lane), a must for anyone interested in the environment.

    Frank McManus, Todmordern

    This year I have enjoyed Bob Holman's biography of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, entitled Woodbine Willie: An Unsung Hero of World War One, published by Lion Books, an imprint of Lion Hudson plc. Kennedy, a Worcester vicar, joined up as a western front chaplain in world war one in belief in the righteousness of the allies' cause. Insisting on sharing the soldiers' hardships, and offering them spiritual uplift and the cigarettes that earned him his nickname, his reckless courage won him the Military Cross for helping the wounded in no man's land. He tried and failed to "square the circle" and reconcile Christ and war, and slowly moved the whole way to pacifism, declaring that "steel kills the sinner but cannot excise the sin." After the war he became missioner for the Industrial Christian Fellowship which for tactical reasons did not highlight his anti-war preaching. Passionate for social justice, he concluded that the church wasn't sincere enough and the labour movement wasn't spiritual enough. Famed as an orator when public speakers drew audiences of hundreds, he drove himself to early death at 45, a then-famous national figure, well portrayed by Bob Holman.

    Kevan Manwaring, Stroud, Gloucestershire

    My favourite novel this year has been Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Gollancz). I am convinced he is the modern genius of British fantasy. This exploration of the faultlines of reality set in Joyce's native Leicestershire is layered with the psychological ambiguity, wit, snappy dialogue and tense plotting that is becoming his trademark.

    Tristan Martin, Royston, Hertfordshire

    With the 50th anniversary of JFK's murder, the mainstream media has written and said a lot around the subject, but scrupulously avoided discussion of any substantial evidence regarding the actual circumstances. Two excellent books will give you both the fine detail and the bigger picture. For the specifics, no single volume is better than Anthony Summers' The Kennedy Conspiracy (Warner Books). Summers' forensic sifting of the voluminous and often contradictory evidence is hugely impressive and his judgements are always balanced. For the bigger picture, Kennedy-era Pentagon insider Colonel L Fletcher Prouty gives us plentiful insights into cold war deep politics in JFK: The CIA, Vietnam and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy (Citadel Press). Here, Prouty shows us that Kennedy's approach to negotiations with the Soviet Union, withdrawal from Vietnam and the dismantling of the CIA, among other policies, sent shockwaves through the military-intelligence establishment.

    Kate Mattocks, London

    AM Homes's May We Be Forgiven(Granta) is serious, silly, hilarious, slightly weird and so human, all at the same time. Harold Silver is a brilliantly redemptive soul and one of the best literary characters I've come across.

    Anne Mills, Tonbridge, Kent

    Henry Hitchings in Sorry! The English and Their Manners (John Murray) analyses, using sources from the 13th century to the digital age, social behaviour in speech and action. His comments are subtle, scholarly, and entertaining. Alan Rusbridger, in Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible (Jonathan Cape), produces a gripping account of tackling Chopin's first Ballade as an amateur pianist and, as professional newspaper editor, surviving a stupendous 2010-11, taking on WikiLeaks and phone-hacking. Margaret Wilson's Eva – an Aspiring Victorian (Author's publication, Tonbridge 2008) adds to her series on Jane Austen and her family. Jane Austen's niece Fanny Knight married Sir Edward Knatchbull, and their son, Edward, was Eva's father. Research in local archives connects sympathetically with Victorian family mores, and the beginning of women's university education. Eva adored her classical studies at Newnham College Cambridge, but died too young for full achievement.

    Shirley Mungapen, Southampton

    Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbertby John Drury (Allen Lane). This new work by John Drury, an Anglican priest, is a sensitive account of George Herbert's life, featuring discussion of some of his poems and their influence on modern poets such as TS Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney and Rowan Williams. Herbert lived during the Reformation, with the tensions of Roman Catholicism and Calvinism polarising faith. As a young man he was ambitious in his desires for a career at court, money and popularity. He was seduced by fine clothes and perfume – quite a dandy. Later he became a rural parish priest. Drury records his struggle with the world and his journey of faith. Always the author is aware of the modern reader who may be outside religious thinking, but for whom George Herbert speaks today.

    Arthur Musgrave, Bristol

    The Lost Art of Finding Our Way by John Huth (Harvard University Press) is full of wisdom that is fast disappearing in an age of satnav and GPS. In its careful observation of the natural world it reminds me of Oliver Rackham's History of the Countryside.The Faithful Executioner by Joel Harrington (Bodley Head) is based on diaries kept for 45 years by Franz Schmidt, Nuremberg's city executioner four centuries ago. Schmidt inherited his post and was determined to ensure his sons didn't. This is a story of dishonour, brutality, loyalty, suffering, healing and a search for the restoration of the good name of his family. It's also a fascinating window into a justice system radically different from our own. There's plenty to disagree with in The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe (Oneworld), but it's hard to read this book and not be appalled.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    From The Burning Ground by Roselle Angwin to JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, Guardian readers pick their favourite reads of 2013

    Chris Noakes, Totnes, South Devon

    The Burning Groundby Roselle Angwin (Indigo Dreams Publishing) is that rare thing: a novel of ideas with a rural setting, strong characters and a gripping plotline. It has the normal must-read ingredients of love, loss, sex, danger and death, interwoven with sibling rivalry. The author's exceptional talent for conveying psycho-geography and sense of place focuses on Dartmoor during the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, and she creates a harrowing drama as the horrific consequences of foot-and-mouth, combined with revealed secrets, unravel the characters' relationships and lives. The tension between authenticity and responsibility to others asks the basic question – to what should one really be true? Can't recommend this book too highly.

    Clarissa Notley, Edinburgh

    I certainly found Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fourth Estate), a very good read and full of insight and humour about cultural differences and expectations, also Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury) and was disappointed they were not rated by the writers in your "Books of the Year".

    Giles Oakley, London

    The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook (Viking). You can tell a lot about a person by playing football with them, so, having got to know Rhidian Brook through Sunday soccer sessions, I wondered whether I'd find reflections of his personality in his latest novel, The Aftermath. On the pitch he's skilful, passionate and highly competitive yet always sporting and fair-minded, qualities I found reflected in abundance in his book. Based in part on the true story of his grandfather who was a British army officer in Hamburg in 1946, the novel tells the story of two families living together, one British and the other German. Rhidian is a brilliant story-teller with a highly-developed visual sense, deftly evoking situations and nuances of character as the complex relationships play out with increasing intensity against the backdrop of massive wartime destruction. The slowly evolving recognition of a shared humanity make the novel simultaneously poignant and optimistic.

    Susan O'Connor, Liverpool

    My books of the year include the wonderful The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin), now out in paperback, which I enjoyed for its wide reaching and yet close scrutiny of the landscape and history of our most ancient and yet hidden pathways.I also loved Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy (Andersen Press) which I bought for my nephew but read first because I enjoyed it so much. Set in an ordinary apartment block, in a suburb of New York, it centres on the relationship between two boys, which is never quite what it seems.

    Susan Osborne, Bath

    My favourite read of 2013 is Antoine Laurain's delightful The President's Hat(Gallic Books). It's guaranteed to make you smile. Left behind in a brasserie, François Mitterrand's hat does the rounds bestowing gifts on all who wear it – a diffident accountant stands up to his irritating boss, a woman breaks off her dead-end affair, a member of the bourgeoisie finds his inner socialist – eventually coming full circle. A close second is Jonathan Grimwood's The Last Banquet (Canongate) in which we first meet five-year-old Jean-Marie in 1723 enthusiastically eating stag beetles, analysing their taste and describing it to himself. Following the trajectory of the Age of Reason, Jean-Marie's career takes him from the military academy to a position as manager of Louis XV's menagerie to the Corsican war of independence, all the while pursuing both his culinary and scientific curiosity. It's a vibrantly original novel filled with vividly descriptive passages.

    Jude Owens, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset

    Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bingby Jane Dunn (HarperPress). Daphne devotees, like me, will be as familiar with her own life story as with the characters and landscapes in her writing. But 20 years on from Margaret Forster's biography I was ready for Dunn's twist on the trio of sisters. Daphne shines – not surprisingly – yet retains her mystery. A compelling context of the sisters side by side.

    Stephen Parkin, London

    Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Spring (Canongate) looks beyond the well-documented self-destruction and blighted personal lives of booze-addled writers such as Hemingway, Cheever, and Tennessee Williams. It is a vivid and engrossing form of literary biography. Other highlights include Donna Tartt's humdinger of a book, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown), the gripping and scrupulously researched The Son by Philipp Meyer (Simon & Schuster) and an elegant and beautifully illustrated book on Russian children's literature Inside the Rainbow (Redstone Press), containing poems and stories from the likes of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Osip Mandelstam.

    Terry Philpot, Limpsfield Chart, Surrey

    My Policeman by Bethan Roberts (Vintage). Roberts's novel sets a story of forbidden love in a superbly evocated 1950s Brighton. Tom, the eponymous policeman, is a 76-year-old, retired security guard, embittered that the love of his life was taken from him and left him with a 42-year marriage to Marian, a former teacher, whom he ought long ago to have left. That marriage has been sustained by Marian's endurance and love, but damaged by the disastrous affair between Tom and Patrick, former museum curator. It is examined in 1999 through Marian's confessional outpouring to Patrick, severely diminished by stroke and living with Tom and Marian in their bungalow in Peacehaven, and Patrick's own contemporaneous camp, lightly ironic diary. A novel of great poignancy, detailing a terrible waste of lives, it illuminates a time when there was every reason for that certain love not to dare to speak its name.

    Elizabeth Porter, Cardiff

    Two books by the brilliant Deborah Levy: Black Vodka, published by And Other Stories, contains ten short stories that are shockingly beautiful, elegiac, joyous, and deeply humane. They read like poems. And the memoir Things I Don't Want to Know, published by Notting Hill Editions, packs a punch in barely a hundred pages. Her raw, spare account of escape to Spain at a time of personal crisis frames earlier childhood turning points in South Africa and London: the loss of her ANC father first to political imprisonment and later to marriage breakdown; her own experiences of exile. She tells all this with such lightness, such wit. She is a stunning writer and a feminist for our times.

    Deborah Richards, Truro, Cornwall

    Rachel Cooke's Her Brilliant Career(Virago). As a "child" of the late 1950s, I knew only a little of the 10 extraordinary women of this collection of essays. The sense of discovery was immense: how interesting, varied and often challenging these women's lives were. They gave, even sacrificed, much to make my working life, which started in the mid-70s, possible and acceptable.

    Katharine Robbins, Leeds

    Jean Sprackland's Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach (Vintage) is a travel book entirely set on Ainsdale Sands in the North West of England. Over the course of a year, and before she moves away to re-marry, the poet records her finds and thoughts. In Audur Ava Olafsdottir's Butterflies in November (Pushkin Press), the narrator makes far more rapid changes to her life. At the sudden end of her marriage, she wins the lottery and embarks on a road trip across Iceland. The book is quirky, moving and made me laugh more than any other book this year. I also enjoyed Jo Baker's Longbourn (Doubleday) which retells Pride and Prejudice from the servants' point of view and in the context of the Napoleonic Wars.

    Lyn Roberts, Bicester

    Time-hopping novel, mystery, semi-autobiographical memoir, comment on contemporary society – Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being (Canongate) is all these and much more. The dual narratives of Nao and Ruth, distanced by time and the Pacific Ocean, had me gripped. From Booker shortlistee to Costa novel shortlistee, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life(Doubleday) is her most outstanding work. This is the story, or stories, of Ursula, born during a snowstorm in 1910, as her life/lives unfold. Ditto Ian Rankin's comment: No Booker listing, no justice.

    Michael Ross, London

    The Pikeby Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Fourth Estate). On the face of it, Gabriele D'Annunzio is an unattractive subject for biography – a supreme egoist, conniver, seducer of women. But he was a poet, philosopher and politician too. The beauty of The Pike is that it brings these facets together and shows how they added up to a fascinating life. D'Annunzio's finest hour was his self-promotion to leader of Fiume, a pocket-handkerchief city state which blossomed briefly on the Dalmatian coast while Europe squabbled over the divi-up of Europe after 1918. Protesting his loyalty to Italy, D'Annunzio somehow contrived nevertheless to keep out its Government for an extraordinarily long time. But there was an ominous tone in the comic opera play-acting. Across the Adriatic, one Benito Mussolini was watching the capering and would soon be adapting it for his own ends. He would not be marching on Fiume, but on the bigger prize of Rome. This is a compelling story well told and long overdue.

    Amy Rushton, Stoke-on-Trent

    Deborah Levy's extraordinary long-form essay, Things I Don't Want to Know (Notting Hill Editions), has only confirmed my opinion that she is one of our best writers. Levy delves into her own history to examine her motivations to write, including her painful early life in South Africa. It is a beautifully presented book too. Coincidentally, She Left Me the Gun: My Mother's Life Before Me (Faber) finds Emma Brockes also looking to South Africa for things that she might not want to know. A memoir about the death of a parent and subsequent investigation into her mother's troubled early life in South Africa could have been a harrowing read; instead, Brockes' prose radiates warmth and humour, resulting in a moving testament to the endurance, and often bafflingly nature, of family dynamics.

    Lesley Sander, Cardiff

    Why isn't Deborah Levy's Things I Don't Want to Know on everyone's Books of the Year list? Exquisitely published by Notting Hill Editions, Levy takes us in four autobiographical sections, Political Purpose, Historical Impulse, Sheer Egoism and Aesthetic Enthusiasm, to Majorca following a tear-charged epiphany that "things had to change", Johannesburg in the 1960s during apartheid, to London in the 1970s when she secretly begins to write on paper napkins in a West Finchley greasy spoon and finally back to Majorca in springtime where she has dinner with a sagacious Chinese shopkeeper. Levy wrote that "To become a writer I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all." Please listen to this exhilarating and enthralling "voice which is not loud at all". I'm still listening to it.

    Mick Seals, Sheffield

    If, like me, you think poetry is not for you, then have your preconceptions challenged by West North East (Longbarrow Press), the first collection of poems by Matt Clegg, a well-known figure on the poetry-reading circuit of South and West Yorkshire. The poems are rooted in the area, especially Sheffield and Leeds, but take inspiration from Far Eastern mystics and poets. The result is a powerful fusion of the personal and the universal in language that is readily-accessible and recognisably Yorkshire, but also evocative of landscape – " … Showrooms, factories/lapsing into pylon fields" – and resonant with ideas and meaning. And with a bit of humour and politics thrown in: "If you don't want people rioting/don't honour their bankers above them".

    Simon Sekers, Templecombe, Somerset

    The perfect book to settle down with at Christmas, E A Dineley's The Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof(Constable & Robinson) is the beautifully written, beautifully researched story of Georgian landed gentry and what results when a favourite son is killed in the Peninsula Wars. This is a traditional historical novel, but has nevertheless won over male as well as female readers for its wit and lack of sentimentality, and the gritty details of army life. The first novel by a writer whose next book is eagerly awaited by all those who have enjoyed this one.

    Ross Settles, St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex

    Southern Cross the Dog (Picador), a first novel by Bill Cheng, sweeps the reader away in a stunningly lyrical account of a boy's dramatic adventures into manhood during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The Love Object (Faber) is a masterly collection of short stories by Edna O'Brien, full of sharply observed detail portraying Irish life and loves over the last half century. A fascinating series of wide-ranging expeditions from California to East Sussex in the footsteps of American writers Malcolm Lowry, Charles Olson, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and others, is presented in Iain Sinclair's American Smoke (Hamish Hamilton). Kelly Grovier's 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age (Thames & Hudson) is a beautifully-produced book that challenges the reader to consider whether its full colour selection of art-works since the 1990s may be the ones we remember in 100 years' time.

    John Shields, Wilmslow, Cheshire

    My favourite book of the year is Nostalgiaby Jonathan Buckley (Sort of Books). It is impossible in a few words to do justice to the scope and depth of this multilayered novel, except to recommend it as warmly as possible. It is set in Castelluccio, a small town in Tuscany, the home of an ageing English painter, Gideon Westfall. Through many diffuse strands, which include documentation of Westfall's work, Buckley paints a comprehensive picture of the town's people, history, geography and mythology in a classic evocation of place. I also much enjoyed Honour by Elif Shafak (Penguin), another wonderful novel, the narrative switching back and forth to illuminate the book's central event.

    John Shuttleworth

    Wingspanby Jeremy Hughes (Cillian Press). Award-winning Welsh poet Jeremy Hughes' short novel, published in 2013, Wingspan, is taut, spare and beautifully written. It tells two intertwined stories: a son's search for the father he never knew – an American pilot whose Flying Fortress crashed in South Wales in 1943 following a bombing mission over Germany – combined with an account of his father's twin loves of flying and for the narrator's mother. Hughes's writing is a poet's, with evocative descriptions of the natural landscapes of Suffolk, the Brecon Beacons and the US together with the perfectly rendered experience of wartime flying. But it is the narrator's pursuit of memory and discovery after a lifetime of having lived with his mother that will haunt the reader's imagination. A moving and sensitive novel that is tightly structured throughout from an author to watch.

    John Siberry, Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin

    Good haikus can shimmer like butterflies and Francis Harvey, in Donegal Haiku(Dedalus Press), has the Zen radar and intellectual acuity to trap them in his net. Ethereal in form but humorous and wise in abundance, these pieces float and flow in the shifting weather of his native place: "Swallows never strike / a false note. / Each one of them / has a tuning fork. Roll over, Basho. Deborah Levy plays verbal origami with the stories in Black Vodka(And Other Stories), giving us prismatic glimpses into the boundaries of race and separation, desire and solitude in the cross-currents of contemporary Europe. Smuggled from cultures and even the human anatomy, the stories' after-taste is fresh as a shot of vodka.

    Deborah Singmaster, London

    Nicholas Lezard's paperback choice of the week (20 August) inspired me to read The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán (Penguin Classics), first published in 1886. Bazán was a Spanish intellectual, author of 19 novels, and this is considered her masterpiece. The gothic atmosphere of the manor house is instantly gripping, as is the erratic behaviour of its bullying marquis – a threat to everyone, especially his young bride. There is humour as well as tension – at one point I had to put the book down and walk around the room taking deep breaths. The translation by Lucia Graves, Robert Graves' daughter is outstanding and sent me in search of her excellent autobiography A Woman Unknown(Little Brown). Two great discoveries.

    Janette Smith, Bristol

    1913by Florian Illies (Profile Books) takes us month by month on a journey towards disaster. The prose is suffused with a sense of urgency, as the Reichstag passes a bill to increase military spending and Thomas Mann looks back at the Franco-Prussian war as a 'Moral cleansing'. However, the Kaiser continues to persue his passion for hunting and all Europe's culture flourishes-Rilke, Freud, Proust, Kafka, Picasso and especially Alma Mahler. In Paris, Vienna and Berlin, people begin to feel there is no tomorrow and we feel they knew and we know. Then there is 1913: The Last Year by Charles Emmerson (Bodley Head) taking us beyond Europe and July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin with another explanation.

    Michael Solan, Chester–le-Street, County Durham

    Essential buys: two more volumes on the Beatles, both are epic and definitive. The first, Mark Lewisohn's opening of his biographical trilogy, The Beatles – Tune in: All These Years (Little, Brown). The second, Kevin Howlett's The Beatles: The BBC Archives(BBC Books). As a teenager I watched them enter EMI studios at Abbey Road and waited for them to emerge at 5.30 the next morning. Unforgettable! They were recording The White Album in August 1968. Howlett tells you all you want to know about their appearances and broadcasts. Lewisohn's book examines their early lives and ends with them on the verge of unprecedented fame. Both books are lavishly illustrated and capture the group's magic and uniqueness.

    Gillean Somerville-Arjat, Edinburgh

    The Professor of Truth (Hamish Hamilton) for being not merely a compelling fiction of one's man's search for the truth behind an airline sabotage that killed his American wife and daughter, and the subsequent, politically motivated conviction of an innocent man, but an astute forensic analysis of the possible truth behind the blowing up of PAN Am 103 over Lockerbie in December, 1988, and the later conviction of the Libyan Abd El Basset El Megrahi. A brave, brilliant, intense novel.

    Philip Spinks, Oxford

    There are two books of nature writing that I really enjoyed this year. Four Fields (Jonathan Cape) by Tim Dee is about four fields, continents apart. Dee's eye is sharp and his descriptions very well done, but some of the exuberant metaphors may overwhelm some readers. Beneath this rich prose is a serious message about conservation. Oxford UP's new edition of Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne, edited with a fine introduction by Anne Secord is wonderful; containing much more than White's letters, the volume can stand alone or join other editions on any nature lover's bookshelf.

    Alison Starling, Sevenoaks, Kent

    My happy summer holiday book was the funny, quirky and surprisingly moving Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple (Phoenix). It's the kind of book you read and want to buy for friends. Richard Ford's haunting tale, Canada (Bloomsbury) is his best yet and could make a great film in the right hands.But my book of the year is Alice Munro's Dear Life (Vintage) – wise, powerful and beautifully understated stories about the strangeness of everyday life.

    Martin Stott, Oxford

    Ruth Levitas asks in Utopia As Method (Palgrave Macmillan) how we might conceive a better world and model alternative futures in the face of developing ecological and economic crises. Ranging across grace, the colour blue and musical expression, Levitas shows how we have always imagined ourselves otherwise dreaming of different ways of being and living. George Monbiot's call for a "re‑wilding" of Britain in Feral (Allen Lane) is a search for a practical utopia where we can reintroduce into the living world not only wolves, lynx, bison, moose and bears, but also humans, replacing a silent spring with a raucous summer. Michael Pollan's Cooked (Allen Lane) is a clarion call for the virtues and values of proper cooking. Like any proper utopian he exhorts readers to take control of their own fates, revelling in cooking in primary colours – animal, wood, fire, time. Barbecued bison anyone?

    Chris Stroud, Bourne End, Buckinghamshire

    Unexpected Lessons in Loveby Bernadine Bishop (John Murray). Justifiably nominated for the Costa, this frank, open, candid novel was my most uplifting read. Unsentimental at every step, I'm so glad she received deserved acclaim. Night Filmby Marisha Plessl (Hutchinson) is an epically dark, crime thriller that transcends its genre. A novel of huge scope with layers of tension added incrementally. The Marrying of Chani Kaufmanby Eve Harris (Sandstone). An insightful and objective novel about an overlooked community in British society. Unflinching and wryly humorous, it manages to reconcile tradition with common sense and modern ideals. The Infatuations by Javier Marias (Hamish Hamilton). Not a word wasted, every sentence delivers some lingering, philosophical resonance. Well-paced and gripping narrative.The Sonby Philipp Meyer (Simon & Schuster). A powerful reminder of what the Booker has to gain by inviting US authors. A new spin on a much visited theme and the multidimensional long-term resonances.

    Michael Sumsion, London

    I loved Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? (Harvill Secker), a meta-fiction that provides no answers, but has a spirit of restless questioning, and that appropriates the unruly messiness of "living" within the text itself. Quick Question (Carcanet), poet John Ashbery's latest collection, approaches the examination of everyday life with his customary lyrical flight, alertness to the power of vernacular and unceasing humour in the face of melancholy's insistent churn. James Salter's All That Is (Picador) was a beautifully written, moving and honest book. It is the protagonist's curse and the narrative's calamity that his appetites alienate him from his true self, in a way that, say, Updike's Rabbit Angstrom never is, and this remains the book's hammer blow, a poetic exploration of the limits of self-knowledge.

    Simon Surtees, London

    Shakespeare's Common Prayers by Daniel Swift (OUP) showed how the 1603 version of the Book of Common Prayer hugely influenced language and structure of Shakespeare's greatest plays whilst at the same showing how it developed the way the nation thinks and worships. Richard Holloway in his autobiography Leaving Alexandria (Canongate) gave a moving and urbane account of how his attempt to dedicate a life to God was scuppered by the vagaries of what the modern church has become. Finally, Peter Carey's The Chemistry of Tears (Faber) was a moving analysis of the mechanics of grief in a modern and secular context.

    Dave Taylor, Purbrook, Hampshire

    Sophie Parkin's marvellous The Colony Room Club (Palmtree Publishers) is a fascinating illustrated history of bohemian Soho between 1948 and 2008 and paints vivid portraits of the artists, writers, musicians, politicians and gangsters that frequented the Dean Street drinking den known as the 'small green room'. Jim Al-Khalili's updated Black Holes, Wormholes and Time Machines (Taylor & Francis) is a remarkably lucid and witty state-of-the-art guide to modern physics and cosmology.

    Lynne Taylor, Burnley, Lancashire

    The Infatuations by Javier Marías (Hamish Hamilton) is a completely new take on murder. Marías's insight into the human condition is acute. In language that is intelligent and a joy to read, this novel is about the coalescence of reality and fantasy, obsession, and the lengths people will go to in the state of el enamoramiento: the madness of being in love. The plot is elicited in glimpses, gradually enabling the reader to disentangle truth from lies. I wish I hadn't read it, then I would still have the pleasure of unknowingness one has when reading it for the first time.

    Genevieve Terry, Exeter

    Among the fiction I've enjoyed most this year are three novels: Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson (Corvus), a thriller set in a world of delight where the visible and the invisible create layer upon layer of meaning; Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (Penguin), where each character's script overlaps with that of every other character, creating the impression of the sort of technicolour or black-and-white movies that you may have watched on Sunday afternoon television; and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Bloomsbury), an old-fashioned but seductive exploration into the miniature and the human. But the novel that probably had the most impact was the disturbing Dirty Work by Gabriel Weston (Jonathan Cape), a story of medical and religious ethics with an almost unbearable finale offered as a choice – to read or not to read.John Tranter

    The Collected Poems by Marcel Proust (Penguin). Yes, Proust wrote poetry – or rather, light verse. There are 104 of his poems collected for this anthology with the original French on facing pages, gathered by the editor Harold Augenbraum and translated into lively English by a wide-ranging but mainly New-York-based multitude of literary figures, from Mary Ann Caws and typographer Jeff Clark to the writers Lydia Davis, Nicholas Christopher, Richard Howard, Jennifer Moxley and Deborah Treisman, and others. As the editor writes, "By the time he was writing his novel, he had found his vocation and his voice, [but] he could also relieve the burdens of that voice by engaging in the avocation of poetry." These jeux d'esprit are like a fizzy cocktail or two at the end of a long working day.

    The Best of the Best American Poetry, 2013 (Scribner Poetry). The annual paperback collection The Best of the Best American Poetry has been running for a quarter of a century now, the brainchild of poet and critic David Lehman. This is Robert Pinsky's selection of the Best 100 poems of "the Best" from that huge crop of verse, and it's a feast of fresh poems, from Sherman Alexie to Kevin Young, and including John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Charles Bukowski, Anne Carson, Robert Creeley and dozens upon dozens of others too numerous to list here. The richness of the talent is as amazing as the sheer variety of subjects and techniques – the strongest and most vigorous English-language culture in the world is in North America and is on show here. Read it and be astonished.

    Ian Tuton, Farnhill, nr Skipton

    Life after Life by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday). Atkinson never fails to surprise as to where the story will take you. After her series featuring sometime investigator Jackson Brodie this is a complete change and no worse for that. Awards should come the way of this novel

    Byron Easy by Jude Cook (William Heinemann)From the start of his journey to the amazing ending of his saga we follow with awe and trepidation his moral life as all around him (almost) everyone else shows the human condition at its worst. If there is any literary justice this should sell by the bucket load. Hope it does and we hear again from this terrific first time novelist!

    Michael Walling, Enfield

    The most important book I read in 2013 was by a 13-year-old Japanese autistic boy. The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida (Sceptre) shows that the conventional view of autism shutting people off from the world is simply wrong. Autistic people are in fact deeply sensitive to the world – and their intense experience of every sensory input is what makes life so challenging for them. It is also what gives Higashida his poetic sensitivity, his love of nature, and his extraordinary ability to turn that sensitivity into the greatest autistic challenge of all – the written word.

    Jay Griffiths's Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (Hamish Hamilton) is a lament for all our Edens – psychological, cultural and above all environmental – and an indictment of the crazed way we live today. Ransom by David Malouf (Vintage) isn't quite new (2009) but it's a glorious response to the Iliad.

    Fiona Walmsley-Collins, St Annes-on-the-Sea, Lancashire

    1914: Poetry Remembersedited by Carol Ann Duffy (Faber) gives today's commissioned postmodern poets and writers the opportunity to reflect on poems and writings from that time. They reinterpret heartfelt and universal themes, as relevant today as the tragedy of the first world war. I have two favourites from the new collection: Gillian Clarke's "Eisteddfod of the Black Chair" and Blake Morrison's "Redacted". It is a book that I would include in any senior school and adult education curriculum to remind all today's youngsters and adults of the both the beauty of language to express physical and emotional pain: the waste of young lives and the futility of war.

    Matthew Wilkie, Farnham, Surrey

    Red or Dead by David Peace (Faber). Red or Dead, at more than 700 pages and with its repetitive prose, should not be the enjoyable read that it is. But this is David Peace in his prime, depicting Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly as football's answers to Churchill, plotting matches as if they were battles, seasons as if they were wars. Epic in every way, this book gripped me from start to finish.

    Beryl Wilkins, Lewes, East Sussex

    The Casual Vacancyby JK Rowling (Sphere). Couldn't put this down – my most spellbinding read this year. Rowling explores, with sharp insight, every level of society in a small, rural town. Weaving effortlessly it seems, between and into every nook of her characters' lives. It's funny, tragic and completely believable – a book that stays with me long after the last page has been read.

    Cavan Wood, Lindfield, West Sussex

    Tracy Chevalier's The Last Runaway (HarperCollins) explores the world of a 19th-century Quaker from Dorset called Honor Bright, in particular her journey to America is explored. The death of her sister means that she has to make a marriage in the Quaker community that she might not have chosen. Spellbinding characterisation and plotting make this an excellent and thoughtful read.

    Maureen Wood, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire

    My book of the year is The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Sphere). Her first adult novel, this is a hard-hitting book. It is set in a small town in the West Country following the death of popular parish councillor Barry Fairbrother. The book ranges from the problems and hypocrisies of the middle classes to the lives of the underbelly of society. Rowling is a wonderful storyteller and the book races along with an eventful plot and a great cast of characters. The teenagers are particularly well drawn with family conflict and teenage angst to the fore. Rowling has a clear eye and a warm heart and knows of what she writes. The events towards the end of the book are shocking but many of the characters have been changed and will move forward, chastened, but with more self-knowledge.

    Lydia Woolley, Weybridge, Surrey

    The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris (Sandstone Press). From the moment I started this book I could not put it down. However, I was torn between reading it constantly and eking it out, as I knew I would be at a loss when I had finished it. (Surprisingly, the last time I felt like this was as a teenager reading Vanity Fair.) I think it is amazing that people can still be living like this in present day England and I believe that they are, as Harris worked in a school in this community and writes from first-hand experience. It would make an ideal book for a book club as it is so very different.© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    A nonsensical poem about the defrocking of a proud old man provides narrative fun and psychological food for thought

    This week's poem, The New Vestments by Edward Lear, provides, like all Lear's nonsense verse, beautifully written narrative fun for children and psychological food for thought for more analytically inclined readers.

    It comes from his last collection of nonsense verse, Laughable Lyrics (1877), which contains some of his most expansive and ingenious narratives. But this poem is relatively uncomplicated in structure and plot. The tale it tells, and even its dactylic rhythm, recalls the limericks of Lear's earlier career, miniature fictions often featuring some bizarrely afflicted old man as the protagonist. At least one of these characters meets a fate not dissimilar to that of the wearer of the "new vestments".

    The four-beat line requires plenty of verbal energy to keep it bouncing. Lear makes effective use of the metrical space to tell us in the opening quatrain that the old man has "invented a purely original dress", and doesn't leave the house until it's "perfectly made and complete" (my italics). These evaluations offer more than padding. While preparing us for amusements to come, they propose a not entirely satirical view of eccentricity. The man from Tess hasn't simply thrown together his unusual costume. He has deliberately created something entirely new, an elaborate one-man fashion statement. He's an artist, in fact.

    All that layering of textures and flavours in the man's apparel suggests a kind of impasto. It's tempting to think of Lear himself, the successful landscape artist, hiding private vulnerabilities in a professional persona and through creative work that covers one bare surface with imagined, painted surfaces. But the mask itself is vulnerable, because creative excess – including excess of talent – threatens order and rationality.

    The sartorial banquet disturbs adult good taste and offends the sense of taste itself. Sometimes, there's too much of the same, with jujubes, chocolate drops, pancakes, jam and biscuits all in unpalatable proximity, like a children's party gone mad. Not all is delicious confection, either. There are the disconcerting dead mice, the rabbit skins and the stockings also made of skins – "but it is not known whose". The "cloak of green Cabbage-leaves" is the final, incongruous touch, adding further concealment for an already heavily concealed figure – and another yuck factor to delight the nursery readership.

    Whereas 12 lines are devoted to the man's costume, a further 24 narrate his undoing by the onslaught of "Beasticles, Birdlings and Boys". No doubt any little Victorian girl listening to the poem would have approved the reference to misbehaving "Boys" but, in the event, they steal only the sweets. All the Beasticles and Birdlings (or Beasts and Birdles) are rapacious, particularly the cats. It's a portrayal that probably doesn't reflect Lear's view of the species: he famously kept a much-loved cat called Foss. Lear's humour derives more from his coined words than rhymes, but an unusual pairing enhances the merriment in lines 25 and 26: "An army of Dogs in a twinkling tore up his /Pork Waistcoat and Trowsers to give to their Puppies". There's a Darwinian undertone to the vision of nature ruthlessly pursuing its survival instinct and triumphing over civilisation. Modern readers may judge the old man exploitative and greedy, as they no longer share Victorian convictions and uncertainties about mankind's position in the biological hierarchy. But we can't fail to sympathise with his defeat and final renunciation. His last words have all the melancholy sonority of the refrain sung by Poe's raven: "Nevermore".

    Lear was as serious about his nonsense verse as his painting: he was delighted when John Ruskin wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1886, nominating A Book of Nonsense Verse as first in his top 100 titles. While yielding plenty to the psychoanalytical reading, such poetry has a didactic element which, though heavily disguised as mischief, shouldn't be underestimated. Lear hated pretentiousness and pomposity. His choice of the grand word "vestments" rather than "clothes" in the title of this week's poem is a reminder of that. Both the qualifying terms mentioned earlier, "purely" and "perfectly", have pious associations: "original" reminds us of "original sin" as well as "the origin of species". The old man may not actually be a bishop, but, as an artist and inventor, he's a kind of god. The defrocking that ensues as he parades in unashamed finery suggests that any sort of pride – even the artist's – goeth before a fall. At least the birds and beasts got a good meal.

    The New Vestments

    There lived an old man in the Kingdom of Tess,
    Who invented a purely original dress;
    And when it was perfectly made and complete,
    He opened the door, and walked into the street.

    By way of a hat, he'd a loaf of Brown Bread,
    In the middle of which he inserted his head; –
    His Shirt was made up of no end of dead Mice,
    The warmth of whose skins was quite fluffy and nice; –
    His Drawers were of Rabbit-skins; - so were his shoes;
    His Stockings were skins, but it is not known whose; –
    His Waistcoat and Trowsers were made of Pork Chops; –
    His Buttons were Jujubes, and Chocolate Drops; –
    His Coat was all Pancakes with Jam for a border,
    And a girdle of Biscuits to keep it in order;
    And he wore over all, as a screen from bad weather,
    A Cloak of green Cabbage-leaves stitched all together.

    He had walked a short way, when he heard a great noise,
    Of all sorts of Beasticles, Birdlings, and Boys; –
    And from every long street and dark lane in the town
    Beasts, Birdles, and Boys in a tumult rushed down.
    Two Cows and a calf ate his Cabbage-leaf Cloak; –
    Four Apes seized his Girdle, which vanished like smoke; –
    Three Kids ate up half of his Pancaky Coat, –
    And the tails were devour'd by an ancient He Goat; –
    An army of Dogs in a twinkling tore up his
    Pork Waistcoat and Trowsers to give to their Puppies; –
    And while they were growling, and mumbling the Chops,
    Ten boys prigged the Jujubes and Chocolate Drops; –
    He tried to run back to his house, but in vain,
    For Scores of fat Pigs came again and again; –
    They rushed out of stables and hovels and doors, –
    They tore off his stockings, his shoes, and his drawers; –
    And now from the housetops with screechings descend,
    Striped, spotted, white, black, and grey Cats without end,
    They jumped on his shoulders and knocked off his hat, –
    When Crows, Ducks, and Hens made a mincemeat of that; –
    They speedily flew at his sleeves in a trice,
    And utterly tore up his Shirt of dead Mice; –
    They swallowed the last of his Shirt with a squall, –
    Whereon he ran home with no clothes on at all.

    And he said to himself as he bolted the door,
    "I will not wear a similar dress any more,
    "Any more, any more, any more, never more!"© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Toxicology tests appear to have conclusively proved that the Chilean poet died of natural causes – but his driver and some of his family are demanding further investigation, maintaining he was murdered by the Pinochet regime

    Members of Pablo Neruda's family are contesting toxicology reports on the exhumed body of Chile's most famous poet that appeared to reveal he was not assassinated, as many have believed since his death in 1973.

    After seven months of forensic tests, it was announced on 8 November that no signs of poison had been found in the remains of Neruda – the man Gabriel García Márquez called "the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language". Yet some of Neruda's family are not satisfied and have asked for the examination of the body to continue.

    Neruda died at the age of 69 on 23 September 1973, just 12 days after Augusto Pinochet's military coup. His body was exhumed from home at Isla Negra, on Chile's Pacific coast, on 8 April 2013 following claims by the poet's driver, Manuel Araya. He maintains that, although Neruda was suffering from prostate cancer, his illness was under control and his death was accelerated on the orders of the Pinochet junta by an injection in his stomach as he lay in his hospital bed in Santiago.

    It is known that Neruda had been offered safe passage out of Chile to Mexico on 22 September by the Mexican ambassador, Gonzalo Martínez Corbalá. Araya insists that the poet was murdered the following day to prevent him from fleeing into exile where, as a world-renowned member of the Chilean Communist party, he would have presented a powerful voice of opposition to the Pinochet regime.

    For more than half of this year, 15 forensic scientists in Chile, North Carolina in the United States and Murcia in Spain examined Neruda's remains, seeking any indication of toxins. On 8 November, Dr Patricio Bustos, director of the Chilean forensic service, the Servicio Médico Legal, announced: "No relevant chemical agents were found besides the pharmacological chemicals used at that time for prostate cancer. Pablo Neruda died of natural causes, due to his prostate cancer."

    Neruda's family is divided. One of his nephews, Rodolfo Reyes, is unconvinced by the forensic findings. He cited a report released on 6 November by a Swiss laboratory on the remains of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, indicating results consistent with polonium poisoning. "We have to keep investigating," said Reyes. "This is just the start."

    He added that he would ask Mario Carroza, the Chilean judge in charge of the case, for further biological tests for traces of sarin gas and thallium. "The judge has said he is open to that possibility," Reyes said. "This report does not mean that the criminal investigation into the death will be closed, and there is enough reasonable doubt that merits keeping it open."

    In stark contrast, another of Neruda's nephews, Bernardo Reyes, is certain that Neruda died of natural causes. "All the speculation merely discredits its authors. It sprang from the mind of a man [Araya] guilty of thousands of contradictions, and he has been aided and abetted by journalists prone to sensationalism rather than any desire for objectivity."

    So, four decades after his death, 1971 Nobel prize winner Neruda remains at the centre of a continuing intrigue. Indeed, the story took a bizarre new twist in late July this year, when Attorney Eduardo Contreras, who represents Chile's Communist party, requested further tests to confirm whether the remains being examined were actually those of Pablo Neruda at all. Contreras pointed out that this was the third time Neruda's body had been exhumed: he had previously been moved to the General Cemetery in Santiago in 1974, then for a second time in 1992 to be buried at Isla Negra.

    Contreras added: "The fact should not be ignored that the dictatorship, in order to avoid the discovery of thousands of crimes, hid bodies, changed the locations of remains, buried others in their place, threw bodies into the sea, burned others." Judge Mario Carroza agreed to allow these tests, adding that, if necessary, the DNA of the remains would be compared with that of Neruda's parents, who are buried in southern Chile.

    Araya appears to be totally unpersuaded by the forensic report. In an interview, he declared: "After more than 400 tests on his remains, they were unable to say what Pablo Neruda died of. It's ridiculous. They need to do more investigations, and the judge is going to order these. We are sure he was murdered, because he was not close to death."

    For his part, Carroza told journalists that it was still impossible to state with certainty whether Neruda was murdered or not: "This will take more time." One of the scientists involved in the tests on Neruda's remains, Spain's Francisco Etxeberría – who also took part in the exhumations of Chile's President Salvador Allende, toppled by the Pinochet coup, and the murdered Chilean singer-songwriter Víctor Jara – said: "We didn't find any forensic evidence indicating that [Neruda's] death was not a natural one." Nevertheless, he conceded that analysis of bone, especially after four decades, was much more difficult than testing a recently deceased body.

    Meanwhile, Contreras also called for more tests on Neruda's remains. "Toxicological tests must be performed before any conclusive analysis results seal the case. We are going to request more samples because, even though they apparently did not find chemical agents, they never studied biological agents. A very important chapter has closed, but this is not over." Araya's contention that Neruda was not in a critical condition at the time of his death is contradicted by some of the friends who visited him in Room 406 of the Santa María Clinic in Santiago in the last days of his life. They told me they found him extremely ill.

    Others, however, claimed that he was lucid, pointing out that he was continuing to dictate his memoirs to his secretary, Homero Arce. Neruda's widow, Matilde Urrutia, always maintained that his cancer was under control. It seems clear to many that the poet's condition was exacerbated by his torment over the horrors being committed by Pinochet's agents.

    The day after Neruda's death, the Chilean daily El Mercurio published a story stating that the poet had died as the result of shock brought on after an injection. This version disappeared completely from the official diagnosis, which was malnutrition and wasting away related to his prostate cancer. However, the official hospital medical records relating to Neruda's death have also vanished, adding to the mystery.

    On 31 May this year, Carroza issued an order for the police to track down a certain Dr Price – the man said to have been treating Neruda to the end. Although there is no record of a Dr Price in any of the hospital's archives, the description of Price as tall and blond with blue eyes is reported to match that of Michael Townley, a CIA double agent who worked with the Chilean secret police under Pinochet. Townley was put into the witness-protection programme after he admitted killing critics of Pinochet in Washington and Buenos Aires. At the beginning of June this year, US sources insisted that Townley had not been in Chile on the day Neruda died.

    Those maintaining that Neruda may have been murdered also point to the fact that Eduardo Frei Montalva, president of Chile from 1964 to 1970, died in the same Santiago hospital, the Santa María Clinic, in 1982 after expressing his opposition to the military dictatorship. Frei's death was initially attributed to septic shock during a routine operation, but a 2006 investigation proved that he had been assassinated with mustard gas and thallium.

    Asked why it was so important to determine precisely how Neruda died, the Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta said he still believed Neruda died of cancer. "Yet there is legitimate doubt … The whole affair is extremely sad, especially the removal of Neruda's remains from his beloved home at Isla Negra. But Chile needs to know for certain what actually happened and [if he was murdered], the criminals have to be tracked down."

    • An updated edition of Adam Feinstein's biography, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, was published by Bloomsbury in September this year© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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  • 12/30/13--05:50: Cécile Nobrega obituary
  • My mother, Cécile Nobrega, who has died aged 94, was an accomplished classical composer (her piece Twilight has been sung by many national choirs), poet, sculptor and educator.

    In the 1990s, she started a charitable organisation, the Bronze Woman Project, with the aim of raising a public monument to womanhood. It took its name from a poem she had written about motherhood. After years of planning and fundraising, in 2008, a 10ft statue of a mother and child, sculpted by Aleix Barbat, representing women, particularly those from the developing world and the descendants of slaves, was erected in Stockwell Gardens, south-west London.

    Though anonymous, it is the first statue of a black woman in Britain, and was unveiled in time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, and the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the first Caribbean immigrants to Britain on the Windrush.

    Cécile was born in Georgetown, Guyana, daughter of Canon WA Burgan and his wife Imelda, and was a gifted child who wrote music and poetry from an early age. In 1942 she married Romeo Nobrega. She trained as a teacher and started two schools, a kindergarten and a vocational school for teenage girls. She won several awards for her music and wrote plays, one of which, Stabroek Fantasy (1956), set in the Stabroek market of Georgetown, had record runs in Guyana and was adapted as Carib Gold for a Jamaican pantomime.

    In 1969, after losing an employment case against the Guyana government at the Privy Council (which remains a point of reference in employment law), Cecile emigrated to the UK. She retrained at Hockerill College, Hertfordshire, to teach music, art and language through drama, and worked in Hertfordshire and Brent, north London. She was active in the National Union of Teachers and in the adult literacy programme, and campaigned against placing misunderstood children, often those from ethnic minorities, in ESN (Educationally Subnormal) schools.

    She also joined the writers' group PEN, the International Alliance of Women and the Commonwealth Countries League, which gave her the opportunity to travel and meet like-minded influential women. At conferences of the IAW in New York, Kenya, Greece, Japan and India, she expounded the need for some monumental recognition of womanhood. After Romeo's death in 1994, she threw her energies into her quest for this monument.

    With the Bronze Woman statue in place, Cécile slowed down, but did not stop. She gave up driving, the computer and the piano, but remained active with Lambeth Pensioners, and practised tai chi.

    Cécile is survived by three children, Keith, Eve and me, three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    The return of Sherlock on TV, Wolf Hall at the RSC and Lord of the Flies: the ballet – plus new books from Dave Eggers, Sarah Waters, Stephen King and many more

    January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November | December


    1 Cumberbatch, Freeman et al return for a new series of Sherlock (BBC1). But surely there's no way that Holmes could have survived that fall at the end of the last series ...

    7 The Costa award category winners are announced– best novel, first novel, biography, poetry collection and children's book. The writer to follow Hilary Mantel as overall winner will be revealed on 28 January.

    8 On the subject of Mantel, the RSC adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies officially open today and run until the end of March.

    12 The film adaptation of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, set in Nazi Germany and starring Geoffrey Rush, opens. Other film adaptations this month include the Kenneth Branagh-directed reboot of Jack Ryan, based on Tom Clancy novels, and Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, based on the memoir of a Wall St conman.

    14King Lear with Simon Russell Beale, directed by Sam Mendes, opens at the National Theatre.

    28 On this day 75 years ago, WB Yeats died in Menton, France, prompting WH Auden's elegy ("He disappeared in the dead of winter: / The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted").


    & Sons by David Gilbert (Fourth Estate). A Salingerishly reclusive writer tries to reunite with his estranged sons in a panoramic American novel that's been lavishly praised in the States and talked about as a possible Man Booker contender over here. Interview, page 10

    Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas (Atlantic). In the follow-up to the much talked-about The Slap, a young, working-class Australian swimmer falls apart under the pressure of family and ambition.

    The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin (Doubleday). The cult Tales of the City series continues, as transgender landlady Mrs Madrigal, now in her 90s, takes a road trip into the Nevada desert and back into her past.

    The Thing About December by Donal Ryan (Doubleday). The Spinning Heart,  about an Irish village in the grip of recession, won the 2013 Guardian first book award. Ryan's new novel is set in rural Ireland a decade earlier, when the Celtic Tiger was still raging.

    Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem (Cape). Lethem's latest focuses on three generations of a radical New York family.

    The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane (Sceptre). An impressive debut about old age, memory and the mystery that is other people.


    Acts of Union, Acts of Disunion by Linda Colley (Profile). In the year of the Scottish vote on independence, the historian discusses what has held the UK together.

    White Beech by Germaine Greer (Bloomsbury): on the challenge, taken by Greer and her sister, of rehabilitating 60 hectares of a dairy farm in south-east Queensland. The indefatigable Australian feminist critic also celebrates her 75th birthday this month.


    5 Godfather of the Beats, William Burroughs, was born on this day in 1914: "Sometimes paranoia's just having all the facts."

    7Ralph Fiennes's film The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin's biography of Dickens's mistress Nelly Ternan, is released today. Other February films include George Clooney's The Monuments Men, based on Robert Edsel's book about recovering artworks stolen by the Nazis, and In Secret, a version of Zola's Thérèse Raquin starring Mackenzie Crook and Elizabeth Olsen.

    8 The stage version of Orwell's 1984 opens at the Almeida theatre, London.

    21Christopher Marlowe's 450th birthday will be celebrated today. It may or may not be his actual birthday.

    There has been no shortage of new Bond material recently. Expect no slowing down in a year that marks the 50th anniversary of Ian Fleming's death. A BBC mini-series kicks it off, with Dominic Cooper as Fleming.


    Early Levy by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton). Following her Booker shortlisting for Swimming Home, and with a new novel promised in 2015, Levy is back on the literary radar. This edition comprises two novels, Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography.

    Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi(Picador). The latest novel from the author of White Is for Witching and Mr Fox.

    The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi (Faber). No subject is out of bounds as a fading writer gets into a battle of wills with his young biographer.

    By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan (Canongate). The last in his exuberant vampire trilogy.


    John Burnside follows up his Forward and TS Eliot prize-winningBlack Cat Bonewith a new collection, All One Breath (Cape). Lavinia Greenlaw takes on Troilus and Criseyde in A Double Sorrow (Faber), and Paul Farley's Selected Poems (Picador).


    Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart (Hamish Hamilton). The novelist's story, from Soviet childhood to neurotic New York adulthood.

    The News: a User's Manual by Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton). More life lessons, this time on the subject of the news and what it does to our minds.

    All That Is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster by Danny Dorling (Allen Lane). The prolific academic on class, wealth and what is, for him, the crucial issue facing Britain.

    Ten Cities That Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt (Allen Lane). The new shadow secretary of state for education in his other guise as a historian.

    Inside a Pearl by Edmund White (Bloomsbury). A memoir of the author's years among the cultural and intellectual elite of 1980s Paris.

    Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen (Granta). Brought forward due to the amnesty and release, this is the story of the feminist post-punk collective told by the author of a much-admired book on Putin.


    1 Author of The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, was born on this day in 1914.

    2Oscars ceremony: novel adaptations were rare in 2013, leaving Saving Mr Banks (with Emma Thompson a best actress chance as PL Travers) as the most bookish film likely to be in contention. However, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, 12 Years A Slave, Philomena, Captain Phillips and The Monuments Men are all book-based, and August: Osage County reworks Tracy Letts's play.

    7 The film adaptation of Nick Hornby's bleak comedy about suicide, A Long Way Down, stars Rosamund Pike, Imogen Poots, Pierce Brosnan and Sam Neill. Also this month comes Under the Skin, based on Michel Faber's novel about an extraterrestrial in Scotland, starring Scarlett Johansson.

    10 The inaugural Folio prize ceremony. Will the panel, selected from an august "Academy", choose an American winner before the Man Booker gets the chance?

    Parts two and three of David Hare's MI5 film trilogy, begun with the Emmy-winning Page Eight, will be screened this month with a starry cast that includes Bill Nighy, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Winona Ryder, Christopher Walken, Judy Davis and Olivia Williams.


    Young Skins by Colin Barrett (Jonathan Cape). The perils of youth in rural Ireland are the subject of this powerful short-story debut.

    Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Atlantic). The twice Booker-shortlisted South African novelist recreates EM Forster's travels to India and the inspiration he found there.

    The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes (Corvus). The first novel from the broadcaster and classicist uses Greek tragedy to underpin a psychological mystery about grief and troubled teens.

    Frog Musicby Emma Donoghue (Picador). The followup to the bestselling Room is a novel of intrigue and murder.

    Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus (Granta). A new short-story collection set in a distorted world where disease strikes at random and people disappear without trace. From the author of the dazzlingly original Flame Alphabet and The Age of Wire and String.

    The Haunted Life by Jack Kerouac (Penguin). This novella about the coming of age of a college track star, written when Kerouac was 22, comes into print 70 years after the handwritten manuscript was lost in a New York taxi.

    Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgård (Harvill Secker). The third in the author's epic, much-acclaimed series of autobiographical novels examines the parallel lives of children and adults in 1970s Norway. "I need the next volume like crack," said Zadie Smith.

    What Was Promised by Tobias Hill (Bloomsbury). The new novel from this undersung talent focuses on three families in London in the decades after the second world war.

    Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li (Fourth Estate). Three friends are haunted by a childhood accident, in the new novel from the award-winning author of The Vagrants.

    Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole (Faber). After years abroad, a young man returns to Nigeria to find a country in flux.

    The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre). Another meditation on art and identity, in which a female artist hides behind male "masks" who exhibit their work as her own.

    A Million Ways to Die in the West by Seth MacFarlane (Canongate). A comic debut from the creator of Family Guy.

    Bark by Lorrie Moore (Faber). Her first new collection in 15 years contains eight stories exploring the passage of time.


    Selfish Generation by Rod Liddle (Fourth Estate). The outspoken contrarian on why our society is rotten.

    The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life by John Carey (Faber). A memoir from the celebrated literary critic and broadcaster.

    The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (Granta). The New Yorker writer revisits George Eliot's classic.

    Courtney Love: The Autobiography (Macmillan). The title and publication date might change (yet again), but this book is bound to contain some hair-raising stories, of the "let's snort Kurt's ashes" variety.

    No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald (Metropolitan Books). An account of Edward Snowden, the NSA and the surveillance state by the reporter who helped to break the story (The Snowden Files: The True Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man by the Guardian's Luke Harding will follow from Guardian Faber in April).

    Roy Jenkins by John Campbell (Cape). A full biography of a man sometimes called the greatest prime minister we never had.


    2 Loved for his irreverent interpretations of classics such as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, Matthew Bourne's company New Adventures has ventured away from the ballet repertoire to take on William Golding's Lord of the Flies. It opens at the Lowry, Salford Quays, then tours.

    4 4Marguerite Duras was born on this day in 1914.

    8-10London Book Fair. This year's choice of Korea will ensure plenty of political, as well as publishing, interest.

    14John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was published 75 years ago.

    23Shakespeare is 450 (or at least he was baptised on this date).

    23 A more masculine edge to attract male readers for this year's World Book Night, when 250,000 copies of 20 books will be distributed by 20,000 volunteers. Among the authors on offer are Jeffrey Archer, Martin Cruz Smith, Armistead Maupin and Roald Dahl. Agatha Christie, Adele Parks and Bernardine Evaristo also feature.


    Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis (Hamish Hamilton). This new collection of short stories is her first since winning the International Man Booker.

    Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (Harper Fiction). The queen of crime reimagines Jane Austen's gothic satire for the 21st century.

    Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate). A raucous tale of friendship and growing up, described by Caitlin Moran as "Withnail and I with girls".

    Orfeo by Richard Powers (Atlantic). A composer's artistic experiments arouse the suspicions of homeland security in a new novel from one of America's most exciting novelists.


    American poet John Ashbery's lifelong relationship with France is reflected in the dual publication of his Collected Translations of French poetry and prose (Carcanet). The Dylan Thomas centenary year (see October) sees the welcome arrival of Complete Poems (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).


    You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know: Living with It in Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (Allen Lane). A suitably long-titled sequel to the acclaimed We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families.

    The Valley: A Hundred Years in the Life of a Family by Richard Benson (Bloomsbury). The author of The Farm turns his attention to four generations of a Yorkshire mining family.


    22 Early announced attendees at this year's Hay festival include Toni Morrison, Stephen Fry, Jacqueline Wilson, Francesca Simon and the latest author to join them on the bestseller lists, Jennifer Saunders.

    30Angelina Jolie channels the Brothers Grimm in Maleficent, in which she depicts Sleeping Beauty's "Mistress of All Evil".


    The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh (Jonathan Cape). Welsh promises "swampy Floridian lesbian noir" for his ninth novel.

    Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (Harper Fiction). Beukes continues to mash genres together, as a jaded detective discovers corpses that are a mixture of animal and human.

    Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn (Picador). A satire of literature, celebrity culture and ambition, as writers and judges jostle over the ultimate accolade – the Elysian prize for literature.

    Sally Heathcote: Suffragette by Mary and Bryan Talbot, illustrated by Kate Charlesworth (Jonathan Cape). The duo who won the Costa biography prize with their graphic memoir Dotter of Her Father's Eyes tell the inside story of the campaign for votes for women.


    Simon Armitage translates and retells The Iliad in The Last Days of Troy(Faber). A stage version of his poem will be performed at the Royal Exchange theatre, Manchester. This month also sees Tom Paulin's New Selected Poems (Faber).


    Penguin relaunches Pelican, its non-fiction imprint with five new paperbacks, one of which will be Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991 by the ever-controversial Orlando Figes.

    Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man? by Lewis Wolpert (Faber). The biologist launches into the sex and gender debate.

    Think Like a Freak by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner (Allen Lane). More thoughts on how to make better decisions from the authors of Freakonomics.

    A Curious Career by Lynn Barber (Bloomsbury). Following the success of An Education, turned in to an award-winning film starring Carey Mulligan, the famed and sometimes ferocious interviewer again becomes the subject in this frank memoir.

    I Put a Spell on You by John Burnside (Jonathan Cape). From Cowdenbeath to Cambridge, a coming-of-age memoir, beginning with a brutal murder, by the Scottish poet and novelist.


    4 The Baileys Women's fiction prize– formerly the Orange – will crown a successor to last year's winner, AM Homes.

    5Brian Friel's stage adaptation of Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons opens at the Donmar in London.

    6 John Green's harrowing young adult novel featuring the relationship between a teenage cancer patient and a teenage amputee, The Fault in Our Stars, was a huge bestseller. Now comes the film version starring Willem Dafoe.

    16 This year's Bloomsday will be an occasion for multiple celebration with this month also marking the 100th anniversary of the publication of Joyce's Dubliners.

    26Laurie Lee was born on this day in 1914.


    I Am China by Xiaolu Guo (Chatto). Chinese folk legends merge with contemporary life in a story that travels from a Dover detention centre to smalltown America. From one of the 2013 Granta best of young British novelists.

    Mr Mercedes by Stephen King (Hodder). A retired cop, a race against time, an insight into the mind of an insane killer … King follows Dr Sleep with what he has described as his "first hard-boiled detective novel".

    Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey (Viking). Memory – or the lack of it – continues to be a big theme in fiction. The manuscript of this debut mystery narrated by an 81-year‑old who can't quite remember what she's investigating created a buzz at the London book fair in 2013.

    Portrait of a Man by Georges Perec (MacLehose Press). The first novel by the author of Life: A User's Manual, buried in a drawer in the 1950s and recently discovered by his biographer, features a forger – and a killer.

    To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (Viking). A case of online impersonation leads Ferris's latest baffled anti-hero to a disturbing possibility – what if his virtual self is a better version of the real thing?


    Hugo Williams's new collection, I Knew the Bride (Faber).


    The Message by Naomi Klein (Allen Lane). The Canadian darling of literary political activists turns her attention to climate change.

    Independence by Alasdair Gray (Canongate). The author of Lanark makes the case for Scottish independence.


    It is the 200th anniversary of Mansfield Park this month. The Austen bicentenaries are coming thick and fast – Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) – but, as we learn from Mansfield Park, "nobody minds having what is too good for them".

    7Sir Walter Scott's debut novel, Waverley, was published, 200 years ago, anonymously. Scott thought writing novels might adversely affect his reputation as a poet. By the time the 20-odd books in the series were completed, he was one of the most famous men in the world.

    23The Commonwealth Games open in Glasgow. Related literary events include an Alexander McCall Smith opera and the Julia Donaldson reading marathon.

    28 After much anticipation, not least from publishers, the real centenary of the start of the first world war has arrived with the anniversary of Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia.


    To mark Moomins creator Tove Jansson's centenary year, her first collection of stories, The Listener, is republished for the first time (Profile).


    The great historian of the Spanish speaking world, Hugh Thomas, turns his attention to the 16th-century global empire of Philip II in World Without End (Allen Lane).Some of the detail of 1914-18 begins to emerge in Russia in the First World War by Dominic Lieven (Allen Lane).


    9The Guardian-sponsored Edinburgh international book festival runs until 25 August. In the month before the Scottish independence referendum, you can expect Charlotte Square Gardens to echo to much discussion.


    The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape). The title refers to the outer perimeter of the camp at Auschwitz, as Amis returns to the imaginative territory of Time's Arrow with a love story set amid Nazi horrors.

    How to Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton). Verbs optional, with a new novel from the author of There But For The and The Accidental.

    Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner (Faber). "A darkly comic tale of hope and humanity" set in Thatcher's Britain.


    The Moth, introduced by Neil Gaiman (Profile). The product of a not-for-profit organisation, this collection comprises real stories written by ordinary people, as well as established writers such as Malcolm Gladwell, Sebastian Junger and Nathan Englander.

    Forensics by Val McDermid (Profile). Yes, her again. The bestselling crime writer uncovers the secrets of forensic medicine.

    The Marches by Rory Stewart (Cape). The maverick and eye-catching young Tory MP walks a thousand miles, crossing and recrossing the English-Scottish border.

    The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Makes Us Truly Human by Susan Pinker (Atlantic). A psychologist tackles the neglected subject of proxemics.


    22Alain-Fournier died in action in northern France 100 years ago today, just a year after the publication of his only novel, Le Grand Meaulnes.


    The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Sceptre). The first novel in four years from the Cloud Atlas author is the "rich and strange" story of one woman's life, from the 1980s to ecological disaster in the mid 21st century.

    The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray (Hamish Hamilton). Bittersweet Dublin schooldays comedy Skippy Dies was one of the highlights of 2010. Here's Murray's followup, set in and around a Dublin investment bank.

    Elite Fighting Forces by Jesse Armstrong (Jonathan Cape). The debut novel from the co-creator of Peep Show, in which a group of idealistic young people go to Bosnia to put on a puppet performance.

    Mr Bones by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton). A short-story collection from the globetrotting novelist and travel writer.

    Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber). A writer who has drifted into teaching a course in Athens hears the life stories of her students in a "novel of ideas" that is "channelled through a central character who seems to have lost her agency".

    Since his untimely death in 2004, Michael Donaghy has become one of the most memorialised of poets in elegies written by his surviving contemporaries. Now his work is comprehensively memorialised in a Collected Poems (Picador).

    This is the mega-month for publishers, perhaps especially for prestige Penguin imprint Allen Lane, and among the titles to appear from its presses this month are On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti;The Establishment by Chavsauthor Owen Jones;Snags by Nudgeco-author Richard Thaler;and The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker.

    The Trials of Oscar Pistorius by John Carlin (Atlantic). The South African sprinter is due in court in March for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

    Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 by David Kynaston (Bloomsbury). The latest volume of Kynaston's hugely admired social history.

    Talking to Terrorists: How to End an Armed Conflict by Jonathan Powell (Bodley Head). The diplomat and Tony Blair's former chief of staff, who spent years talking to the IRA, is now a professional mediator.

    The Story of the Jews: When Words Fail, 1492-Present Day by Simon Schama (Bodley Head). The second part of an ambitious work; the first part, helped by the accompanying TV series, was a bestseller.


    3 The film version of Gillian Flynn's 2012 must-read psychological thriller Gone Girl stars Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck.

    14 The winner is announced of the first Man Booker prize under new rules that allow entries from non-Commonwealth countries. Will an American win it? The panel that will decide is chaired by AC Grayling and comprises profs Jonathan Bate and Sarah Churchwell, neuroscientist Dr Daniel Glaser, former British Council director of literature Alastair Niven and journalist Erica Wagner.

    27Dylan Thomas was born on this day in 1914. If you have missed hearing Under Milk Wood or A Child's Christmas in Wales, now will be your chance.


    Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker). Murakami's latest, already a smash hit in Japan, will arrive. The story of an isolated thirtysomething struggling with traumatic memories of high school, it is Murakami in realistic and sombre mood, according to transaltor Philip Gabriel.

    The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Virago). An autumn release is also promised for Waters's follow-up to The Little Stranger. In 1922 London, a genteel widow, bereaved by war, takes in lodgers of the "clerk class" – and finds her house and family shaken to the core.

    Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Virago). Lila is the wife of John Ames from Robinson's previous books, Gilead and Home; now her story will be told.

    Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (Viking). Set 10 years after the events of Brooklyn, in which a young woman escaped 50s Ireland for the US, this new novel returns to the small town she left to unfold the story of a woman coping with widowhood.


    Performance poet Kate Tempest follows up her Ted Hughes-prize-winningBrand New Ancients, an hour-long "spoken story" with orchestral backing, with a new, and as yet untitled, work (Picador). Clive James's translation of Dante has been shortlisted for the Costa prize. He gives some of his thinking about poetry in his Notebooks (Picador). Michael Longley, who is 75 this year, has had a career of rare consistency of quality. His new collection is The Stairwell (Cape).


    Joan of Arc by Helen Castor (Faber). The historian of the Paston family takes on The Maid of Orleans.

    Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid– essays about politics, identity and home, from the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Hamish Hamilton).

    The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson (Hodder). The London mayor is to highlight how one man can make a political difference. Draw no parallels.

    Fields of Blood: A History of Religion and Violence by Karen Armstrong (Bodley Head). The former nun on an always topical subject.


    The Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, won last year by Lucy Hughes-Hallett for The Pike, is awarded this month.

    18Margaret Atwood celebrates her 75th birthday.


    The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (Canongate). His first full-length novel since 2002's Victorian epic The Crimson Petal and the White begins with a missionary's perilous journey.

    Frog by Mo Yan (Hamish Hamilton). The first new book from the controversial Chinese novelist since winning the Nobel prize in 2012 explores China's one-child policy.


    Visitants by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton). The first book of travel writing from the feted American writer.


    Rowan Williams was a poet before he became Archbishop of Canterbury and it is gratifying that he is still one now he has retired. The Other Mountain (Carcanet) is his sixth collection.


    The Guardian first book award is announced.

    2 The Marquis de Sade died 200 years ago today. There will be much conflating of this fact and the new, as yet unscheduled, Fifty Shades of Grey film. Nothing will say Christmas quite like them …

    12Patrick O'Brian was born on this day in 1914.

    Autumn film releases

    Far from the Madding Crowd. Adapted by David Nicholls, dir Thomas Vinterberg, with Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen.

    Suite Française.The adaptation of Irène Némirovsky's posthumously discovered novel about German-occupied France, starring Kristin Scott Thomas.

    Autumn TV releases

    Three-part adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn (BBC1).

    Series based on Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC1).

    BBC adaptation of JK Rowling's novel The Casual Vacancy.© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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  • 01/03/14--05:31: Poster poems: Anniversaries
  • For the 100th Poster poems, we look back at 10 of the most popular blogs in the series and invite entries on a commemorative theme

    The first Poster poems blog was posted on 28 March 2008. It was a bit of an experiment, something that had been in the air, and my original agreement with the good people of Guardian Towers was to try it for 10 weeks or so. The idea really caught on and the blog has now run for a bit longer than first envisaged: this is the 100th in the series.

    The theme for the original post was spring, and it informed what became a pattern of my linking to and briefly discussing a handful of illustrative poems, some famous, others less well known, to serve loosely as models for readers' contributions. The template has allowed me to issue a series of challenges to readers to post their own work for others to enjoy. To mark the Poster poems century, it seems like a good idea to look back at 10 of the most popular of the preceeding 99 poetry calls.

    Having started with a theme in the first blog, I thought it would be a good idea to look at formal challenges, too. The second post was a call for poems in syllabics. This inspired many very interesting contributions and thus the mix of formal and topical challenges became integral to the pattern.

    Of invitations to write in a set form, by far the most popular was the limericks blog of December 2008. One of the more surprising aspects of that blog, for me, was the discovery that one possible originator of what must be the most scurrilous of all English verse forms is the father of scholastic philosophy, Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps it was the good doctor's imprimatur that resulted in the 562 comments that that particular Poster poems attracted. Other popular form-based Poster poems blogs included the sonnet and the haiku/senryu, with fun to be had playing with the apparent restrictions of these tightly controlled structures.

    Given the limited number of established poetic forms, it's hardly surprising that most Poster poems challenges centred on themes and topics. One popular early theme was the call, on 2 May 2008, for satirical poems. Boris Johnson's victory in London's mayoral election that same day may have helped: satire is part of poetry's public face. At the other, more private, end of the poetic spectrum a call for poems on the subject of dreams drew a plentiful response. This was the first Poster poems to benefit from a technical fix that allowed verse line-breaks in comments.

    Occasionally I hit on subjects that straddled the boundary between the formal and the thematic. One such was the language games blog, in which the line between form and content was blurred.

    Even more popular was the call for aubades, or dawn songs, which attracted more than 300 poems.

    As well as covering the great subjects of life, love and death, many themed blogs, like the first, were based on the current time of year. Indeed, in 2012 I invited posters to complete a poetic calendar. It seems fitting to round off this 10 of the best by remembering the January 2012 post that kicked off that series within a series.

    If you're new to Poster poems, I hope you might take a closer look at this selection to get a taste of what it's all about. As the Guardian Books gang have been kind enough to reopen them for comments, you might like to add a poem or two to the mix. Meanwhile, can I invite you to use the comments section for this 100th blog to add poems on the theme of anniversaries or to suggest any of your favourites I may have missed?

    Finally, I'd like to wish all Poster poems readers and contributors old and new a happy new year; here's to a 2014 that's full of verse and other good things for all.

    Another chance to try your hand at:

    Spring poems


    The limerick

    The sonnet

    The haiku

    Satirical verse


    Language poems


    January poems© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    From Catullus to Daniel Craig and Marvell to Wendy Cope, a new volume will gather the most lyrical celebrations of human passion

    Is it easier to write about coupling in rhyming couplets than lines of torrid prose? The poet Sophie Hannah is about to test the theory with a Penguin anthology of poetry about sex that puts lusting about Daniel Craig side by side with Andrew Marvell's lascivious 17th-century plea To His Coy Mistress.

    Hannah's new selection, The Poetry of Sex, follows last year's controversial Bad Sex Awards and makes a clear argument that a sense of rhythm is the key to good sex. The Bad Sex Awards for novelists, organised by the Literary Review, annually shames authors deemed guilty of embarrassing passages of erotic fiction and has now caused British writers to argue that expressing sexual desire or describing the act of intercourse in print is in retreat.

    It is not fair, some complain, to make fun of writers who try to put the essence of such physical exchanges on paper. According to Hannah, an acclaimed poet, any worried novelist should simply turn to poetry. "I am not sure why, but it is easier to write well about sex in poetry than in fiction. Perhaps it is because we want sex (ideally) to be anything but prosaic," she said this weekend. But she concedes that even poets sometimes fail. "We could probably also have a bad-poem sex award… because it's a tricky thing to write about.

    "It is a subject about which people do a lot of lying and self-censorship." The difficulty is that everyone's experience is different. "Success depends on whether the written experiences tally with what one has experienced." Hannah says that, although she enjoyed reading Fifty Shades of Grey and could identify with the narrator's experience of finding an ideal man, there was a crucial drawback, and all empathy stopped there. "I couldn't identify much with that one drawback turning out to be a 'red room of pain', because I've never personally encountered such a thing."

    Literature about sex should never be seen as a guide for the uninitiated, she warned; the choices for her Penguin anthology were driven by literary merit, not instructional value. "I would never choose on that basis with any literature, because then you are not just thinking about the literature for itself."

    She chose poems she has loved all her life – such as Wendy Cope's Message– and sought others by contemporary poets she admires. "I wanted Message because it is a great poem about a woman urging a man to put his skates on and ring up so that they can kiss while they still have their own teeth! It is a variation on the theme of the famous Andrew Marvell poem, which I had to have in the anthology too, of course."

    Marvell's poem builds to the entreaty: Let us roll all our strength, and all/Our sweetness, up into one ball;/And tear our pleasures with rough strife/Thorough the iron gates of life. Catullus's attempts to beguile Lesbia are included, alongside Walt Whitman, Shakespeare and Carol Ann Duffy. Gay and straight, unrequited and unwanted love are represented.

    There are poems about elephants having sex as well as illicit office relationships – and there are two about Daniel Craig. "I did not think about gender politics or about from which perspective a poem was written. If someone recommended something to me, I thought about whether the poem was saying something that wasn't covered in any of the others. So I put in a poem by Richard Goodson, which is about having a Daniel Craig photograph as the screensaver on his computer and how distracting it is because he fancies [Craig] so much." Goodson writes that Craig "rises like a Christ newly baptised in sky blue trunks".

    Hannah sought to look at how poets have approached the subject, so consulted friends and put up requests for help in the Poetry Library in London and on the Poetry Society's Facebook page. Among her favourites is Ernest Dowson's Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae. "It is about how you can be haunted by a previous lover, even while you are trying to pay attention to a new one." She also chose a work by Kit Wright, a poet she regards as among the best now writing. "His Dark Night of the Sole has a woman tell a lover that her husband is 'an odd fish' and then it transpires she means this quite literally."

    Edna St Vincent Millay also gets the Penguin seal of approval for her unexpectedly robust sentiments in the poem I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed in which a lover reveals that her interest in a man is entirely physical and that she has no time for talk.

    Hannah remains a romantic. "After 42 years I still believe in love, although I think it comes in many forms … It can be an insanity. Yet, since I have been happily married for 14 years, I haven't felt the need to write so much about it. I have written very few poems about my husband, in fact!"© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Influx of visitors expected in 100th year since birth of poet and hellraiser, who died in 1953 at the age of 39

    The bookshops are stocking up, the hotels undergoing spring-cleans and the pubs preparing to welcome guests keen to follow in the footsteps of Wales's most famous poet and hellraiser.

    Admirers of Dylan Thomas are expected to descend in droves on South Wales this year not just from across the UK but from the US, Europe and the far east to join a year-long celebration marking the centenary of his birth.

    At the same time, as part of the Dylan Thomas 100 festivities, the Welsh government and the British Council Wales are organising a series of cultural events and education initiatives across North America, India, Australia and Argentina to further spread the word about Thomas – and Wales.

    Jeff Towns, who runs Dylans Bookstore in Swansea, city of Thomas's birth in October 1914, said he was expecting the centenary to reinforce the poet's global reputation as well as providing an economic boost for the region.

    "The Americans took Thomas to heart after his death in New York, especially after the likes of Richard Burton and Bob Dylan made their admiration for him clear," said Towns. "He was elevated to an icon alongside the likes of James Dean."

    Towns, such a fan that he sports a tattoo of the Thomas line: "Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means", said continental Europe came to love the writer not for his roistering image and rock'n'roll early death aged 39, but simply for his poetry.

    "I've always found that Europeans, especially Scandinavians, took to him without the prejudice that he has faced in England and Wales. They are more interested in the work on the page rather than the man."

    But Thomas's reputation has not always been as solid in Wales as in other parts of the world. One theory is that as a non-native speaker he was considered not Welsh enough in Wales – but was regarded as too Welsh by the English. Towns also believes that his reputation as a womaniser and drinker upset the puritanical element in Wales.

    However, it sounds as if Wales may be ready to finally embrace Thomas. The first minister, Carwyn Jones, is a big fan, revealing to the Guardian that his favourite character from Under Milk Wood is the blind Captain Cat, who dreams of his long-gone shipmates and lost lover Rosie Probert in Thomas's play for voices.

    The first minister chuckled as he pointed out how Thomas's fictional village in Under Milk Wood – Llareggub – spelled out something rather rude backwards. "That shows the devilment of the man."

    Jones has launched the Dylan 100 international programme– Starless and Bible Black – a phrase from Under Milk Wood. The idea is to put on a series of cultural events and also to offer teaching notes about Thomas to schools across the world to spread the word even further.

    The first minister said: "We look forward to the celebrations and events taking place in London, across the UK and internationally. As the momentum behind this great festival gathers apace, I hope that many visitors will be encouraged to visit Wales and discover the inspiration that lies behind the legacy."

    It will help that a star-studded cast of ambassadors from actors including Michael Sheen and Rob Brydon to poets such as Carol Ann Duffy and the National Poet Of Wales, Gillian Clarke, are promoting the celebrations in Britain and across the globe.

    The city and council of Swansea – described by Thomas as an "ugly, lovely town" – is working hard to tempt big American names.

    Nick Bradley, the council member for regeneration, is hoping that Bill Clinton, a Thomas fan, will visit for the centenary. He would not be the first former president to make the pilgrimage: Jimmy Carter opened the city's Dylan Thomas Centre in 1995. "We are hoping the Americans will come. Thomas is still a big thing there, especially on the east coast," said Bradley.

    Forty miles west, preparations for the Thomas celebrations are under way in Laugharne, home to Thomas's boathouse and writing shed, which boasts a wondrous view of no fewer than four estuaries. It was here he wrote Under Milk Wood, which was inspired in part by the people of the town.

    Brown's Hotel , where Thomas said he used to like to "moulder" and write at a wrought iron table facing the door, has just completed a timely refurbishment. Manager Jon Tregenna said he had heard a whisper that the American actor Johnny Depp, who has Thomas letters and manuscripts, may make an appearance.

    Tregenna is expecting not only Americans and Europeans but Chinese and Japanese enthusiasts who are increasingly relishing Thomas's poetry.

    "We're seeing bookings up already. I think we're going to have a great year," he said.

    Not all are totally convinced that the hordes will come. George Tremlett, who has written books about Thomas and runs the Corran bookshop in Laugharne, said: "We could all do with a little bit more prosperity. We'll see what happens."

    But he is wise enough not to depend too much on Thomas for his living. "We actually sell more Jane Austen and the Brontës, than Thomas."

    • This article was amended on 6 January 2013 to correct a hoards/hordes homophone.© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    The young writer's version of the classical lyric poet is inflected with the eccentric innovation that marked his own work

    Besides the dazzling original poetry for which he's celebrated, Gerard Manley Hopkins produced a small number of translations from the Greek and Latin poets. This week's poem, "Persicos odi…", is one of his two Horace translations. It was written early in his career when, after leaving Oxford in 1867 with a double-first in Classics, he spent a semester teaching at Newman's Oratory School, Birmingham. "Persicos odi…" (Book 1:38) is a remarkably textured little lyric. Despite its formality, the poem has a soundscape full of characteristic Hopkins timbres.

    That fatherly, even priestly, apostrophe ("Ah child") initially sounds a rather stifled Victorian note. Hopkins's "child" is less casual and more neutral than Horace's "puer" and lacks the sexual undertone which might be inferred from the original. Hopkins's seriousness of purpose is evident, too, in his choice of the word "art" to translate "apparatus", rather than the more usual "ostentation". Despite this so far sedate linguistic palate, he pulls off a lovely surprise with the coined compound-adjective, "Persian-perfect". The homonymic "per" of the first syllable of both words intensifies their trochaic mirroring, and evokes the entwined patterning of a tile or carpet, reminding us, ironically, how beautiful and logical Persian art may be. The rhyme scheme has a similar effect: Hopkins picks an ABAB pattern, but the A and B rhymes in both verses are so similar that the sounds seem to coil around each other.

    The alliterative show goes on with "Crowns composite and braided bast". Hopkins seems to be emotionally entangled with these images, so intrigued, in fact, that he separates the "coronas" from the "bast" (which threads them into a garland) and then folksily repeats the subject of his sentence in line two with the pronoun "They".

    Those "Persian" excesses which positively offend Horace merely "tease" young Hopkins. The Celtic knots of the alliterative phrases he ties throughout the translation tease us readers with the suspicion that ostentatious word play doesn't displease him at all. But the thought moves on, and in the last line-and-a-half of the first stanza, Hopkins becomes cryptic: "Never know the part/ Where roses linger last". The "part" the boy is to avoid might be some part in a play or a song, or it might suggest a part of the body. Without the Horace poem to hand, a reader probably wouldn't immediately grasp the primary meaning of "part" as "place". Hopkins seems to have chosen the word deliberately for its range of meanings. The roses, consequently, may not only be roses, but slow-fade blushes. At the same time, there's clearly an aesthetic imperative here. The last rose is a dangerously melancholy and decadent symbol. Its pursuit, whether by young poets or young lovers, is best avoided.

    The second stanza sounds extraordinarily modern. Serendipity is responsible for the echo which relates "your place and mine" to the invitation, in today's vernacular, "your place or mine?" As in the original, the real emphasis is the social position of the speaker relative to that of the boy addressed. Myrtle, the antithesis of luxury, may symbolise an equality achieved despite the difference in the social position of the speaker and the child; or it may be appropriate to each for entirely separate reasons.

    Hopkins's innovative master-stroke is the addition of "glasses" to the tavern scene. Yet the phrase "tackled vine" is no less striking. All the meanings associated with "tack" and "tackle", not excluding the association with male genitalia, seem captured in that marvellously characteristic word. The conjuring of the two glasses purposely "set" in the shade of the vine is intensely suggestive, an erotic icon as well as an image of controlled lavishness. It's a brilliant pictorial conclusion, and a foretaste of the quality of the work Gerard Manley Hopkins will produce in his maturity.

    "Persicos odi, puer, apparatus"

    Ah Child, no Persian-perfect art!
    Crowns composite and braided bast
    They tease me. Never know the part
      Where roses linger last.

    Bring natural myrtle, and have done:
    Myrtle will suit your place and mine:
    And set the glasses from the sun
      Beneath the tackled vine.


    Horace Odes, Book 1:38

    Persicos odi, puer, apparatus,
    displicent nexae philyra coronae,
    mitte sectari, rosa quo locorum
      sera moretur.

    Simplici myrto nihil adlabores
    sedulus, curo: neque te ministrum
    dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
      vite bibentem.© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Novel, described as 'one of the best books about mental health', goes on to compete for overall prize

    Nathan Filer still does the odd Sunday shift as a registered mental health nurse, although they may well become less frequent after his debut novel – originally the subject of an 11-publisher bidding war – was on Monday night named winner of one of the UK's leading book prizes.

    The comedian Jo Brand has called The Shock of the Fall "one of the best books about mental illness" and judges for the Costa book awards said it was a novel "so good it will make you feel a better person".

    It was named as one of five category winners for the Costas and will go forward to compete for the overall book of the year prize, to be decided later this month.

    Filer, 32, won in the best first novel category for a story about a young man's dramatic descent into mental illness, although the author said he hopes it is about more than that.

    "It's a story about a family coming to terms with grief and it is a character study of Matthew Holmes and one of the things about him is that he's got schizophrenia. But it's not a novel about schizophrenia and it's not a novel about the NHS," said the author.

    Having said that, Filer admitted a responsibility not to propagate myths around schizophrenia, a condition that is still "misunderstood and misrepresented", he said. "If you ask the man in the street you will still get lots of people taking about split personality, which is completely bogus … and violence which of course can be associated with it but more often isn't."

    The book, which took Filer three years to write, is based on his MA at Bath Spa University where he now lectures in creative writing. But the story has been on his mind for far longer. "I first started thinking of the main character when I was training as a nurse in 2003 so I've been mulling over it for years," he said.

    Filer, also a regular fixture on the stand up poetry circuit, said being a mental health nurse was fulfilling as well as frustrating. "It is not a terribly good time to get unwell at the moment or need NHS services for mental illness. There are a lot of cuts and beds closing. It is a difficult time to be a nurse, it's a very difficult time to be a patient," he said.

    The novel made book world headlines last year when 11 publishers bid for it, a "dizzying and unexpected" experience, said Filer. The winner, with "a substantial six figure sum", was HarperCollins.

    Aside from Filer, the 2013 Costa winners were named as Kate Atkinson in the novel section, for Life After Life; Lucy Hughes-Hallett for her biography of the Italian fascist writer Gabriele D'Annunzio; Chris Riddell for his children's book Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse; and Michael Symmons Roberts for his collection of poetry Drysalter.

    The Costa awards are open only to authors resident in the UK and Ireland, and openly celebrate the "enjoyability" of books. Bookmakers William Hill have made Hughes-Hallett 2/1 favourite to win the overall prize, to be decided by a panel chaired by writer Rose Tremain.

    All the winners receive £5,000 at this stage and entry into the book of the year award, with a prize of £30,000.

    Atkinson's category win was for her eighth novel, and comes 20 years after she made such a splash with her debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which won the overall prize when it was known as the Whitbread book of the year.

    Life After Life tells the multiple stories of Ursula Todd, born in England during a snowstorm in 1910. It has won praise for its inventiveness, with the narrative starting over and again, in a Groundhog Day fashion, exploring the question of what happens when we get the chance – time after time – to do the right thing. The book, shortlisted for last year's women's prize for fiction, was described by Costa judges as "astonishing"." They added: "This book does everything you could ask for in a work of fiction and so much more."

    Hughes-Hallett's book The Pike has already won her the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. Her subject, D'Annunzio, was an early 20th-century poet and demagogue who in 1919 tried to set up what he saw as a utopian modern state called Fiume in what is now Croatia. Judges called the book "an unexpectedly seductive biography which brilliantly transports the reader into the mind of a monstrous talent who was at the heart of Europe's dark past".

    In poetry, Symmons Roberts won for his sixth and most ambitious collection, in which all 150 poems have 15 lines. The judges described it as "contemporary life filtered through the form of common prayer with a musicality sustained across a memorable body of work".

    The children's book winner, Riddell, is a political cartoonist whose work regularly appears in the Observer and the New Statesman. His work for children is substantial, illustrating many picture books and, with Paul Stewart, creating Muddle Earth, which became an animated series on CBBC. The judges called his Goth Girl novel "an instant classic for children of all ages".

    If it were to win that it would be a rare thing with only one children's book, Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass in 2001, winning the overall prize since the award was created in 1985.© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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