From history to fiction, politics to poetry, Guardian readers pick their favourite reads of 2012
Timothy Adès London
My best new books are: Victor Hugo, How to be a Grandfather, the Complete Edition, from Hearing Eye (my own work); new versions of Rilke by both Ian Crockatt (Arc) and Martyn Crucefix (Sonnets to Orpheus, Enitharmon); Oliver Bernard's Rimbaud: The Poems re-issued by Anvil; and two Spanish volumes by Michael Smith and others, from Shearsman: The Complete Poems of Vallejo and Cantes Flamencos. All but mine have both English and foreign text. Full of Noises by Tom Service (Faber) is a series of conversations with my son Thomas, the composer.
Kate Anderson Sheffield
Michael Frayn's Skios (Faber) was the most fun read of 2012 and made this old, cynical, hard-to-please reader laugh out loud. It is a farce of mistaken identities that rips along with brio and wears its cleverness lightly. There are glorious running gags and a Greek joke that still makes me smile six months after reading it.
John Ness Barkes Berwick-upon-Tweed
After winning a Pulitzer prize for their biography of Jackson Pollock, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith spent 10 years researching another self-destructive alcoholic genius. Van Gogh: The Life (Profile Books) is an astonishing, myth-dispelling achievement. The authors' convincing reconstruction of the circumstances of Van Gogh's violent death attracted most media comment, but this is just one of many instances in which the book replaces myth with fact.
I have greatly enjoyed reading David Kynaston's magisterial work in progress on the social history of postwar Britain, Austerity Britain 1945-51 (Bloomsbury) and Family Britain 1951-57(Bloomsbury). Focussing on the intimate moments of everyday life rather than the machinations of those in power, he has a novelist's eye for telling detail and brings the past to life. Those years were formative ones for my parents, who were married in 1945 and had my brothers in 1952, and reading these books made me feel as if I was living their lives along with them.
A Pillar of Impotence by Mark Edgar (Chipmunka Publishing). An accessible and fascinating insight into one man's descent into depression and his struggle to come to terms with his situation. A surprisingly enjoyable read even if you have no direct connection with the subject. This book accurately sums up what a lottery mental health care really is, fortunately for both patient and reader this emotional ride ends on a positive note.
Tim Blackburn London
Trieste by Dasa Drndic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac (MacLehose Press), is original, moving and beautifully translated and produced. At first glance, it is a "Holocaust novel". But it's about much more than the deportation of Trieste's Jews, and reads more like documentary than fiction. To Haya Tedeschi in occupied Slovenia Kurt Franz is just a handsome German officer. But their baby son is then abducted for Himmler's 'Lebensborn' programme aimed at producing Aryan 'Uebermenschen'. Six decades later, her mind melting 'like chocolate', Haya still waits for her lost son. Drndic makes extensive use of war trial archives, poetry, songs, lists and photographs to convey ideas of memory and identity, as well as to dramatise past crimes.
Kurt Franz, like many of the book's protagonists, is historical: he became commander of the Treblinka camp. But his affair with Haya Tedeschi is fictional (according to the family of the real-life Haya Tedeschi!).
Mark Blayney Newcastle upon Tyne
Heavy Duty Trouble by Iain Parke (bad-press.co.uk) is the last part of a trilogy of hardnosed and, it has to be said, very foul-mouthed UK-based thrillers set in the world of outlaw motorcycle gangs – a sort of Sons of Anarchy meets Get Carter. But don't be put off by the subject matter. These are no cheap, bikesploitation pulp fictions, as Parke uses the series to explore ideas of power, politics, knowledge and trust, as well as delivering some astonishing plot twists. What's more, one of the key characters is a journalist on the Guardian.
Ralph Blumenau London
The Submission(Windmill) by Amy Waldman. A novel about the controversy that breaks out when a committee chooses an anonymously submitted design for a 9/11 memorial, and the designer turns out to be a secular Muslim. The author has thought of every reasonable and every bigoted, every cool and every emotional argument on each side. Bird Brain (Vintage) by Guy Kennaway. A hilarious jeu d'esprit. A crusty right-wing misanthrope, whose only interest in life is shooting pheasants, dies and is reincarnated as a pheasant, but with his human mentality unchanged. It has a cast of sundry animals, all of whom can understand human speech and talk to each other, but not to humans. The Last Pre-Raphaelite(Faber) by Fiona MacCarthy. A beautiful biography of the sweet-natured Edward Burne-Jones. The personality of his life-long friend William Morris is also wonderfully brought out.
Charles Boardman Nottingham
Wendy Jones's The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals(Corsair)takes us to small-town Wales in the 1920s, where a young undertaker makes a spur-of-the-moment – and instantly regretted – marriage proposal, placing himself in a seemingly unmendable predicament. I read this deft, gentle and often touching novel with enormous delight.
Not to be swallowed whole, but recommended for reading in bed, one every other night, are John Jeremiah Sullivan's marvellous magazine articles collected in Pulphead: Dispatches from the Other Side of America(Vintage).
Sue Brooks Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire
First published in 1951 and republished as a classic this year in a sumptuous new edition, A Land by Jacquetta Hawkes (Collins Nature Library) is a beautiful object to have and to hold. Hawkes was in love in the summer of 1950, and her emotion spilled out into this passionate archaeological and geological celebration of Britain. Sixty years later, Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways (Hamish Hamilton) and Kathleen Jamie's Sightlines (Sort Of Books) have continued this celebration as long-trusted, invisible companions who enrich my own walking.
Michael Callanan Birmingham
For me this has been a year for the essay. Kathleen Jamie's Sightlines "tingles with life", as Diana Athill wrote. Jamie vividly brings to life the cold northern world of uninhabited Hebridean islands and elongated Scandinavian days and nights."La Cueva" is an outstanding essay, a dry-break from the sea-life of the other essays, a trip down into a cave that delves into the history of consciousness. I was also excited to see Siri Hustvedt's collection of essays, Living, Thinking, Looking (Sceptre). Hustvedt is one of the best writers working today. Where Jamie is earthy, Hustvedt is cerebral, but both are exact with their writing, Hustvedt like a surgeon with a scalpel and Jamie an archaeologist with her detail brush.
Dawn Churchill Belper
Sharon Olds's collection of poems Stag's Leap(Jonathan Cape) is a heartbreaking account of the break-up (or down) of the writer's marriage. The Boxer and the Goalkeeperby Andy Martin (Simon & Schuster) is a comparison of the lives and philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus with a bit of Simone de Beauvoir thrown in (Camus comes out on top).
I couldn't bear to read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I did read Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (Digireads.com) to prove I'm not a prude, and I found it feminist, poetic and, at times, romantic – especially the end section where it is stated that women will never be equal in relationships with men until they are equal in employment and education.
Morna Clements Colchester, Essex
My favourite book this year is The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (Faber). The jubilee prompted a rereading of this delightful little story. The Queen discovers a travelling library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and finds a true love of reading books. It is very funny and somehow moving. Bennett's description of the Queen is quite believable, and now when I watch her on TV I can't help wondering what's on her reading list.
Marge Clouts Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire
The title of Clive James's latest collection of poems Nefertiti in the Flak Tower(Picador) indicates, with its disjunction of ancient beauty and 20th-century warfare, the dazzling leaps of metaphor and subject it contains. These are serious, metrically intricate poems, but no less heartfelt for that.
Jennifer Coates London
In Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate) Hilary Mantel inhabits the world she is writing about in an extraordinary way, so that we, the readers, are completely spellbound. She is in a different league from all other current writers. The other outstanding read for me was Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury), beautifully written and extremely moving. 2012 was a rare year for me as I actually concurred with the judges of both the Man Booker and the Orange prizes! I also enjoyed Belinda McKeon Solace (Picador); Emma Donoghue's The Sealed Letter (Picador); Michele Roberts's Ignorance (Bloomsbury); Mark Haddon's The Red House (Jonathan Cape).
Denton, East Sussex
Storyteller Michael O'Leary's Hampshire and Isle of Wight Folk Tales (History Press) skilfully combines urban legends heard, as often as not, "from the bloke with the high-viz jacket" encountered somewhere in the sprawling Southampton-Portsmouth hinterland, with the kind of archaic rural lore more readily associated with these counties. The author's familiarity with his locale, conversational idiom and satirical wit (sparing no-one, storytellers included) make the collection a piquant mid-winter read.
Angus Doulton Bere Ferrers, Devon
Lizzie Collingham's The Taste of War (Penguin) examines how each of the main combatants in the second world war fed, or didn't feed, their fighting forces, civilian populations and conquered peoples. These details are set beside what was then the emerging science of nutrition. The National Socialists knew most about that because they were as interested in the best ways to starve people as how to feed them. There are some fascinating asides. Who realises that the most enduring success of the second world war lies in establishing Coca-Cola as a global brand?
Anne Driver London
Charlotte Rogan's astonishing first novel The Lifeboat (Virago) concerns the intense contest for survival between two occupants of a single lifeboat – a strong-minded woman and a tough sailor. The study of the woman is particularly striking. How glad I am to recommend this overlooked book.
Paul Eastwood Stamford, Lincolnshire
In a year when the arts have been under almost constant threat, two books gave me hope and inspiration. David Gentleman's London, You're Beautiful (Particular Books) is subtitled "an artist's year", but it is really a love story. Gentleman's relish for his home city is in every line, every brushstroke.
For the arts to survive we need to stimulate the next generation. Mark Hearld, the illustrator of A First Book of Natureby the children's writer Nicola Davies (Walker Books), does just that – with page after page of exhilarating artwork.
When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art and Democracy: An Illustrated Documentary in book form by David Larkin, text by Roger G. Kennedy (Rizzoli) shows in graphic detail how President Roosevelt's depression initiatives put the unemployed to work. Among them were painters, photographers, landscapers, architects, carpenters and writers. Their shared sense of purpose re-energised the country. If only…Julian Girdham Dublin
The Crocodile by the Door (Penguin) by Selina Guinness is a brilliant portrait of her sweet-natured Uncle Charles (a man I knew well) in his final years in the crumbling Tibradden House on the edge of Dublin. It is also a vivid account of the author's struggles with this house, a droll narrative about running a scarcely viable farm and the sad story of the elderly couple who live in the lodge with their son. As developers' helicopters scan the property for opportunities, we are given a memorable insight into the death of the Celtic Tiger, and all told in Guinness's supple, wry, elegant style.
Simon Gladdish Swansea
You can see what an embarrassment of riches we have received this year by the fact that your authors' recommendations so rarely coincided.Despite being a poet myself, I have read very little poetry recently. My favourite novels have been, in the order in which I read them: The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine (Atlantic Books), More Than You Can Say by Paul Torday (Phoenix) and A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (Fourth Estate). And I have now asked Santa (aka my wife) for Gore Vidal's Collected Essays (Abacus). Paul Torday and Patrick Gale are both great novelists who deserve to be read even more widely.
Robert Gomme London
Professor Andersen's Night by Dag Solstad (Harvill Secker), translated from the Norwegian by Agnes Scott Langeland.It is 24 December: Professor Andersen has a Christmas tree in the living room and a table tastefully laid for one in the dining room. He looks at the flats in the opposite street and sees a man strangling a woman. What should he do? Weeks go by. It is too late to go to the police. The professor becomes obsessed. He can't sleep. He can't work. The story sounds very unfunny, but it has light touches and humorous moments and is difficult to put down.Britanniae by Mark O'Sullivan (Starbank Press). Spring comes to English provinces that have basked in the glow of Roman civilisation for 300 years. Running her family estate, Flavia holds herself equal to men. Then she finds news that her brother has died north of Hadrian's Wall, in a mysterious mission. In O'Sullivan's evocative tale Flavia sets off northward from her home in the Fens to find out his fate. On the way she meets tyrants, spies, traitors and suspicious Christians, and faces the beginnings of the collapse of the Roman empire in Britain. It is a good story which has an ingenious and atmospheric plot with good characterisation and rich knowledge of Roman ways and customs.
Fiona Henderson Norwich
Still enjoying the pictures and text in Tessa Newcomb's The Adorable Plot (Sansom & Co): paintings and writings about garden allotments with lots of quirky details and titles.
John Horder London
The Letters of Ted Hughes & Keith Sagar edited by Keith Sagar (British Library) and The Letters of Ted Hughes (Faber), edited by Christopher Reid. These books complement one another. Sagar takes Hughes to task for his views about "Venus & Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece", as expressed in his brutally reviewed book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. The Hughes-Sagar letters redress the balance, giving as good as they get. The most fascinating item in Reid's nourishing edition is Hughes's heartbreaking letter about the shattered and battered three-year-old in all of us. Hughes is constantly taking great risks, particularly about the occult, and amazing himself in both books.
My best book of poems is Robert Nye's 50th collection, An Almost Dancer (Rage Exchange, 2012).
Mr G Hudson Jarrow
The book I have enjoyed most this year is The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel (Verba Mundi). It was first published in 1936 and republished this year in a revised and unabridged English translation. It tells the remarkable story of the heroic resistance of a group of Armenian villagers during the genocide instigated by the Turkish government in 1916. Werfel, a German-speaking Jewish convert to Christianity, wrote the book to inform readers about the suffering of the Armenian people and also as a warning to the German people of the dangers of racial intolerance.
Heidi James Purley, Surrey
My favourite fiction title this year was Pig Iron (Bluemoose Books) by Ben Myers, a profound and disturbing take on the world of the dispossessed.
Kate Johnson Mirfield, West Yorkshire
For me, the most fulfilling read of the year was Richard Ford's Canada (Bloomsbury). It reveals the effects on a young boy of a foolhardy bank robbery by his parents. We know what has happened from the first sentence – that he grows up to makes sense of this action and is not scarred by fury or blame – and it enriches the soul of the reader. In comparison Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son (Constable and Robinson) by Roger and Charles Mortimer charts the frustrations and love of a father trying to steer his son to some semblance of order, by means of letters of admonishment and good advice.
Melanie Jones Worcester
I was devastated by A Monster Calls, first conceived of by the late Siobhan Dowd, brought to life by Patrick Ness and, if the written word were not powerful enough, illustrated brilliantly by Jim Kay (Walker Books). I was moved by Jenni Fagan's fantastic debut The Panopticon (William Heinemann). As for the recently reissued Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell (Penguin Modern Classics), long may this brilliantly observed masterpiece of tragicomedy remain in print.
Julie Kemmy Norwich
All That I Haveby Castle Freeman (Duckworth). This short book is a gem of wisdom and humanity based around a small-town sheriff who has learned the value of letting things and people be, and waiting for them to come good. The narrator is country simple, with a voice that is full of truth and humour, but this isn't just smalltown America: he faces seriously violent big-time gangsters as well as small-time criminals. This is a book full of insight and heart that doesn't shy away from the possibility of wrongness in all of us.
Jo Kirk Belper, Derbyshire
I was a member of one of the reading groups to receive a big pile of Dickens novels from the Reading Agency at the beginning of the year, to mark the author's bicentenary, and we had got through rather a lot of words by the time we received Havisham by Ronald Frame (Faber) in November. The novel imagines the early life of Miss Havisham, and is light reading after the density, subtlety and complexity of Dickens. Frame is spare by comparison – spacious and poetic. Ronald Frame has a mischievous pageboy stepping on the train of Miss Havisham's veil and having fun among the imaginary flowers of her youth. However, there is an incongruity between the lively character he creates and the Dickensian fate to which he later subjects her.
Kate Latham Gunnislake, Cornwall
Siri Hustvedt's Living, Thinking, Looking (Hodder) is a wonderful mix of the personal and the erudite, covering subjects as diverse as not sleeping, looking at art and the process of reading. Marilynne Robinson's When I Was a Child I Read Books (Virago) is harder going but worth it for the title essay, which offers an extra insight into the genesis and reading of her fiction. Julian Barnes trumps all in Through the Window (Vintage), his collection of "Seventeen essays (and one short story)" covering, inter alia, the mechanics of writing, reading "difficult" literature and the importance of rereading. Each essay is a pleasure, but if "Regulating Sorrow" does not move you to reflect on profound personal loss then you have a cold, cold heart.
Colette Lawlor Silverdale, North Lancashire
Rook by Jane Rusbridge (Bloomsbury) beautifully described the landscape of the Sussex coast, echoing with battles, buried bodies and Nora the protagonist's running shoes as she finds her own way of working through the knots of her life and those close to her. Rich, real and memorable characters inhabit Patrick Gale's novel . Set around Penzance, during different stages of the local priest's life, it shows how he is linked to more people than he knows. Humane and enlightening.
The End of the Wasp Season (Orion) by Denise Mina is genuinely surprising in the way it exploress events in the lives of both murdered and murderer: Glasgow's different faces.The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones (Chatto & Windus) is set in a country house, isolated both socially and physically from the rest of the world. A haunting mystery, with candlelight on silver, crunching gravel, and a bizarre link to the nearby railway line.
Philip Leach London
One of the latest contributions to our rich tradition of oral history exploring working lives, Candy Whittome and David Morris's The Last Hunters (Full Circle Editions) tells the story of the lives of the crabmen of Cromer. Five years in the making, it is a series of honest and affectionate portraits of the fishermen, their wives and other industry characters such as the boat-builder and the seaman's mission superintendent, accompanied by Morris's beautifully expressive photographs. Some come from families who have been at sea for generations, others started on the trawlers and some were lured to make their lives from the sea on leaving school. Pared down and crafted from longer interviews, Whittome's intimate vignettes allow the subjects to speak for themselves, telling us of the long hours, rough seas, the hard drinking and the tragedies, as well as triumphs, romance and, ultimately, of dedication to their profession.
Gerard Lee Dublin
InNight by David Harsent (Faber) ghosts "bring with them a coldness, as tradition demands … and bring a chorus of cries / to fill the air as if it were birdsong". Here, the shadows might be glimpses and reflections of some other self, and there is a sense throughout of a narrator who is haunting his own life, never more so than in the towering long, last poem, "Elsewhere". Night is a rich and reflective collection that demands, and repays, repeated reading.
Margaret Leibbrandt London
For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication(Short Books). A romp through the history of handwriting and a delightful vindication of my passion for old-fashioned letter-writing as half of a conversation (to me, each one is a sort of gift). A book to prod lazy correspondents, email addicts and people who still enjoy writing real letters. Entertaining, amusing, necessary! Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud by Martin Gayford (Thames & Hudson) offers a rare glimpse of an artist at work.
Terry Lempriere Warrington
The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane certainly fulfilled my expectations: he is a masterful wordsmith and observer of nature, place and human reactions and feelings, and this series of journeys along historical pathways – both in Britain and elsewhere – is absorbing and inspirational. I was disappointed that he did not win the Samuel Johnson prize, but have now read the winner, Into the Silence by Wade Davis (Vintage), and found it an epic and truly sympathetic account of connections between war experiences and mountaineering exploits after 1918.
Maria C McCarthy Teynham, Sittingbourne, Kent
Michael Foley offers a kind of literary philosophy in Embracing the Ordinary (Simon & Schuster). Among the diverse joys embraced are misplaced apostrophes, coffee drinking rituals, belly-slapping in the shower, the specifics of biscuits in Mike Leigh films, and an erotic passage on sharpening pencils. Tangents to the narrative of Happiness Comes from Nowhere by Shauna Gilligan (Ward Wood Publishing) often prove the most poignant. A woman takes the hotel room next to one where her friend is conducting an affair; a maiden aunt, in an act of love, covers her piano with cakes she has baked for the man who paints her front door once a year. In Nancy Gaffield's Tokaido Road (CB Editions) each poem paints a word-picture of one of Hiroshige's woodcuts of the 1830s. The poems are beautiful, understated and contemplative; read them alone, or alongside the prints, which are available online.
Kev McCready Liverpool
Stonemouth(Little, Brown) is Iain Banks's third telling of a nasty Scottish homecoming, and his best for some time. Distrust That Particular Flavor (Viking) gathers together William Gibson's articles. Here, the godfather of cyberpunk is less interested in science and technology for its own sake than in how it affects us.
Stuart McRill York
Patrick Gale's A Perfectly Good Man is absorbing, playful and delightful. Paralysed in a rugby accident, 21-year-old Lenny Barnes takes his own life in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish. So begins a novel that has at its core the question of what it means to be good. Moving backwards and forwards in time, Gale recounts Barnaby's life and its underlying periods of grief, disappointment, guilt and sadness. This novelist has again proved he knows how to tell an intimate story.
Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys by DA Powell (Graywolf Press). Powell's fifth collection of poetry is as powerful and perceptive as his earlier work. Short poems are interlinked to create a wider picture. An heir to Cavafy, Powell is both more direct and more elusive. His poems develop from a moment felt, or remembered – with pain or pleasure, regret or wry humour – while his observations avoid the judgments they invite. It is difficult to believe Powell doesn't yet have a publisher in the UK Until this happens Useless Landscape is available on Amazon. However the Poetry Book Society may provide a more ethical option to obtaining his work in the UK, including his earlier volumes (tel: 0207 831 6967 or www.poetrybooks.co.uk ).
Anne Mills Tonbridge, Kent
Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury) is a story of interconnecting court cases involving a doctor claiming loss of reputation and a husband presenting his wife's diary as evidence of adultery. Whether the diary describes reality or fantasy remains uncertain. Summerscale painstakingly analyses medicine, property, divorce and the treatment of women.
The Peak District at Warby Peter Clowes (Churnet Valley Books) , an admirable account, from 1940 when the Home Guard was established, to VE Day 1945. Its 175 pages represent the best of local journalism: Lancaster bombers rehearse for the raid on German dams in May 1943, a girls' school is evacuated to Chatsworth, a wedding is solemnised in a bombed church-coats were worn. And so on.Ayo Onatade London
Books to Die For edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke (Hodder) is a collection of essays from some of the world's best-known crime writers on their favourite books. The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (Serpent's Tail) involves not only a crime but also segregation and its effects. Slaughter's Hound by Declan Burke (Liberties Press) is a welcome return to an earlier character, Harry Rigby. Dark, broody and with black comic asides.
Robin Percival Derry
The outstanding book for me is Mario Vargas Llosa's The Dream of the Celt(Faber). Both a biography and a novel, its "hero" is Roger Casement, the Irish rebel, homosexual and human rights activist executed by the British in 1916. The book vividly highlights Casement's efforts to expose the cruelties of colonialism and the brutalities committed by private European-controlled armies against indigenous people. With Casement waiting to be executed by the British, he remembers the past and ponders his own impending death. The book's fictional core is the burgeoning relationship between Casement and his prison warder, whose son has died in the trenches. A great read about arguably Britain's finest "traitor".
David Pollard Hove, East Sussex
John Sallis's new offering, Logic of Imagination (Indiana University Press), follows his earlier volume Force of Imagination, moving beyond the traditional concept of logic to suggest another area for thought, the logic of imagination. But best are his readings of earlier philosophers, which are a revelation. Second: Pessoa: A Vision (Perdika Press) a slim volume by Simon Jenner which does that extraordinary thing, evokes the complex persona of an earlier poet who took on a hundred different heteronyms. Jenner reworks these voices in his own inimitable way. A series of wonderful and complex jewels.
Third:Kaddish (Knopf) by Leon Wieseltier which is advertised as an account of Jewish spirituality but is, for me, an account of mourning. It follows his investigations into the prayer for the dead through the Jewish texts. Half journal and half research project , it is a profound and moving meditation.
Adrian Potter Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
In The White People and Other Weird Stories(Penguin Classics) Arthur Machen envisages wild tracts of land in Britain at the turn of the 20th century "more unknown to Englishmen than the very heart of Africa", where the "little people" still hold sway. "Fairies", if you like, but this is a race of uncouth and demonic beings who strike primal terror into the hearts of rural folk. Machen is equally good at evoking a labyrinthine London based on his own poverty-stricken years spent in poky garrets. The output of Reaktion's irresistible Animal series seemed to go into overdrive this year. Highlights included the long-awaited Wolfby Garry Marvin and Hyenaby Mikita Brottman. The latter demonstrates that any beast can be championed; and having read what matriarchal spotted hyenas have to go through in order to conceive and give birth, this species is certainly deserving of sympathy.
Andrea Scutts London
Having last year enjoyed The Black Madonna of Derby (Silkmill Press), chronicling three generations of a Polish family settled in Derby after the second world war, I was pleased to see that Joanna Czechowska had written a sequel. Black Madonna dealt with the headstrong teenager Wanda during the 1960s and 70s; Sweetest Enemy continues through the Thatcher years. It's an absorbing read for anyone who likes strong characters and plot within a fascinating framework of recent history.
Hugh Searle Witchford, Cambridgeshire
Two unforgettable religious memoirs. Richard Holloway in Leaving Alexandria (Canongate) traces the author's conflicts – with himself and with institutional religion – from priesthood training to the episcopate; he finally walks off into the Pentland Hills, turning his back on the Church and an absent God. But he walks hopefully. Francis Spufford in Unapologetic(Faber) confronts this absence, yet (amazingly) discovers a transcendence like "a wisp of a presence, as deniable as vapour, which you feel is holding the house up".
John Shields Wilmslow, Cheshire
I loved Painter of Silenceby Georgina Harding (Bloomsbury). At times I deliberately slowed my reading to make the book last longer. The novel opens with Augustin's journey to the city to find Safta. What follows is a series of journeys as we revisit through reminiscence the devastation of war in Eastern Europe and then join Augustin and Safta on their way back to their birthplace. It seemed so easy and natural to go along with them, watching and listening as the whole story unfolds through Safta's memories and Augustan's drawings. Both the urban and rural locations are realised through lyrically descriptive writing of the highest quality. It is an immensely uplifting novel.
Michael Solan Chester-le-Street, County Durham
The Rolling Stones: 50 (Thames & Hudson). In this doorstep of a book, crystal-clear images perfectly capture the moment. The band on stage at Newcastle City Hall 7 October 1965 – mayhem I remember well. Many pages and nearly 40 years later, Jagger at Twickenham Stadium, the first night of an American tour – a hot August night in Washington. So many memories, what better way to relive them!
Philip Spinks Stratford-upon-Avon
Our finest living nature writer, Richard Mabey, provides delight with Weeds(Profile); well researched as ever, thoughtful and beautifully written, this is where nature writing and literature meet. Mabey ranks alongside Jefferies, Hudson and Clare in his genre. From delights to horrors in All Hell Let Looseby Max Hastings (HarperCollins): politicians and generals have walk-on parts only as (in a single volume) Hastings manages to describe the entire second world war from below and shows that, worldwide, very few were unaffected by the conflict.
Martin Stott Oxford
Heathcote Williams's latest poetry collection Forbidden Fruit(Huxley Scientific Press) is a meditation on science, technology and natural history. The title poem is a moving tribute to our greatest computer scientist, Alan Turing. This is a collection which is by turns tender, provocative, surprising and, in its own way, political. Fellow anarchist Colin Ward's Talking Green (Five Leaves Publications) is a collection of 12 essays on allotments, squatting, smallholdings and the life and death of the Land Settlement Association. Ward connects green politics and lifestyle to everyday living and working, in the process confirming his cross-political and cross-generational appeal. Former Irish President Mary Robinson's memoir Everybody Matters (Hodder and Stoughton) is the chronicle of an inspirational life. Feminist, human rights advocate and mould breaking politician, the book tells of a life defined by humility and hard work.
Simon Surtees London
In an Olympian year, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate) stood out as a meditation on competitive sport, self-sacrifice and the concept of perfectionism. Although set in the feverish pitch of college baseball, it managed to convey the obsessive nature of both the physical training and the intense interest of the voyeurs on the outside. All this and Moby-Dick as well! On the English side, Justin Cartwright's Other People's Money (Bloomsbury) was a funny and subtle depiction of banking ethics just when it was needed.
Dave Taylor Purbrook, Hampshire
Andy Merrifield's John Berger (Reaktion Books), an illuminating study of the writer and art critic, describes Berger's remarkable way of life in the Haute-Savoie, and gives an insight into the ideas and wide-ranging work of one of Europe's greatest living intellectuals. Gary Weiss's Ayn Rand Nation (St Martin's Press) is a chilling account of the resurgence of Rand's extreme rightwing objectivist philosophy, which has recently had a huge influence on the Republican party and American society.
Genevieve Terry Exeter
Usually I stick with novels, but this year the best storytellers for me were in non-fiction. The book that brought me the most joy was Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways. He offers such a generous space for the reader to walk alongside him; one can hardly believe he writes from memory at a desk. To couple this with John Jeremiah Sullivan's essays on American culture Pulphead might seem something of a culture clash, but Sullivan has an equally persuasive ability to get inside your head. Fiction-wise, I cannot recommend too strongly Denis Johnson's haunting, 128-page epic Train Dreams (Granta), Elliot Perlman's multi-layered story of remembering The Streetsweeper (Faber) and I.J.Kay's almost impossibly extraordinary Mountains of the Moon (Jonathan Cape). All of three of them so much more than their book jacket plot summaries.
Nigel Townson Bucharest
Kevin Smith's Jammy Dodger (Sandstone Press) is set in 1980s Belfast and recounts the tribulations of two twentysomething editors of a struggling poetry magazine. This hardly sounds like a barrel of laughs, but Jammy Dodger is rib-achingly funny. I'm not in the habit of laughing aloud when reading, but I read this on a flight and laughed so much that I was attracting stares. Smith is both stylish and inventive with his lexical choices – "goldfishing" a smoke-ring is one I particularly liked. He also brings real colour to his characters. Hugely entertaining.
Terry Ward Wickford, Essex
My favourite novel of the year was Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg (Quercus). It opens in 1830 with the arrival on St Kilda of a newly married protestant minister and his wife. But the pagan Gaelic locals are not as malleable as hoped. In non-fiction, None of Us Were Like This Beforeby Joshua ES Phillips (Verso) is a powerful indictment of war. The conditions in the Abu Ghraib prison camp were not, it appears, exceptional.An antidote to the adventures of James Bond is Agent Dmitriby Emil Draitser (Duckworth). This chronicles the real escapades of a Russian agent who ends up in a gulag, but manages to survive.
Graham White Coggeshall, Essex
The Deadman's Pedal by Alan Warner (Jonathan Cape). Strong characterisation and unforgettable scene-setting underpin this brilliant coming-of-age novel set in the Western Highlands of the early 1970s against a backdrop of terminal decline for the regional railway. Defying the wishes of his haulier father, 16-year-old Simon Crimmons leaves school, becomes a trainee driver on the "new" diesel locomotives and embarks on a series of adventures (sexual and otherwise). It is a metaphorical journey from teenage secondary school pranks into full-blown "adulthood" that cries out for a sequel.