From contemporary fiction to classic literature, from poetry to visions of the apocalypse, from history writ large to memoirs writ small, here’s what moved, challenged and provoked a distinguished selection of book-lovers.
When I was a law student I used to enjoy reading those gruesome Victorian shipwreck cases in which survivors are tried for murder after eating the cabin boy. I thought there was a novel in them, and Charlotte Rogan has (more or less) fished it out. The Lifeboat deals with an Atlantic shipwreck in 1914, and the narrative is in the hands of the unscrupulous Grace, who survives, but finds herself forced to explain how she has done it. It is an accomplished and smart first novel, which plays with narrative and moral ambiguity to gripping effect.
My non-fiction book of the year is Hallucinations, from the reliably wonderful Oliver Sacks. As a young doctor, he reveals, he experimented with drugs, only a little deterred by hallucinating the battle of Agincourt; what he was really looking at was the sleeve of his dressing gown. Whether dealing with his own visions or those of his afflicted patients, Sacks brings his spirit of courteous and precise enquiry to the most bewildering workings of the human imagination.
Hilary Mantel this year won her second Man Booker Prize, for Bring Up the Bodies, a sequel to Wolf Hall.
Philip Larkin: Letters To Monica, edited by Anthony Thwaite. I don't usually like reading writers’ letters. Too much smirky, arty, self-betraying lack of authenticity, owing to an arch awareness that “letters are literature, too.” Larkin's letters, however – written between the early fifties all the way to the seventies, near the time of his death, and addressed to his principal love interest, Monica Wood – reveal the poet as grippingly as his poems do: amusingly domestic, brilliant beyond the point of lucky cleverness, ambitious, devious, incorrigibly literary, observant, by turns loving and patronizing to Ms. Wood, occasionally mean-spirited but almost always hilarious about it; bleak, scathingly self-aware and almost always dead interesting. Larkin was somebody you might’ve liked as a neighbour, but only if you didn't have to know him all that well, and could focus instead on his superb poems – the likes of which weren't really equalled in the last century. For those, such as I, who don't like snooping into writers’ supposedly private letters, this might be worth making an exception.
Richard Ford’s most recent novel is Canada.
After reading 145 novels this year as chair of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, my books of the year can only come from that pile. But not from the 12 long-listed or six short-listed books. They have had praise enough already. So I want to offer three novels that did not make the Man Booker cut but stay very strong in my memory of an extraordinary year for fiction. First: Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway, a London tale of mud, magic and a bid for global domination through the agency of golden bees. Second: Mountains of the Moon, by I.J. Kay, a debut of powerful, original prose about a woman piecing together her life with a new name after a prison sentence. Third: This is Life, by Dan Rhodes, the best light book of the 145, starring a baby called Herbert who is temporarily acquired in Paris through an accident of contemporary art.
Peter Stothard is editor of the Times Literary Supplement.
I fought my way upstream against the torrent of the new and the hyped, all the way back to 1937 and John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley, prompted by the vague suggestion of a lit-junkie friend which was acted upon in a rare (for me) oh-what-the-hell moment. This now-forgotten novel earned Marquand the Pulitzer Prize, and I wonder if the committee sensed that it would prove to be time-proof, because this ironic chronicle of the life of a late Boston Brahmin in the first half of the 20th century – told by a friend and observer, with everything meaningful sneaked in between the lines of his diligent whitewashing of Apley’s life – comes at you with none of the mustiness one would expect of an American novel written 76 years ago. The poor, wretched, late Mr. Apley, trapped within the suffocating social constrictions of the Back Bay upper class and unable to experience a spontaneous moment, never manages to find anything like happiness despite his secure social standing, a “perfect” marriage and everything else due an American aristocrat. What counts in his life is what didn’t happen. I can’t help thinking that if Tom Wolfe had been forced to read The Late George Apley before beginning his latest extravaganza of glazed surfaces and comic-strip characters, it would have been one-fourth as long and 14 times better.