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.
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.