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.
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).
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.