Goldengrove (Harper Collins, £10.99), the 12th novel by Francine Prose, is an elegiac farewell to the golden groves of childhood, a slim, sad coming-of-age tale in the great tradition of Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding or even Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. The novel is narrated by 13-year-old Nico, whose small family is reeling at the sudden, accidental drowning of her beloved elder sister, Margaret. Prose modulates beautifully from acute grief to a more ambient tristesse, littering her tale with sharp observations about the way that loss punctuates the everyday for Nico and her distraught parents. Mundane details vividly bring to life the dislocation Margaret's death causes. Prose takes her title from Gerard Manley Hopkins's great poem "Spring and Fall: to a Young Child" to suggest that it is loss and absence that make room for hope.
Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (MacLehose Press, various retail prices) is awesome: a page-turning Harry Potter for grown-ups with real political insight. Reading it, one lives with the tragedy of the author - a campaigning anti-racist and anti-fascist editor who toiled during the night to write his bestsellers and then died before publication. Larsson's fictional insights into sexual violence and the abuse of women show how masculinist patriarchy still shapes modern society, even in its most advanced form in Sweden. Chris Mullin's diaries, A View from the Foothills (Profile Books, £9.99), were a treat. As a journalist and campaigner and as a minister, Chris offers a sardonic, cheerful and truthful account of Tony Blair's government. As we get ready for government of the rich by the rich and for the rich, Mullin reminds us that most Labour ministers were decent and tried to do their best.
The most impressive book I read this year was Ben Wilson's What Price Liberty? (Faber & Faber, £14.99), which puts New Labour's cavalier attitude to civil liberties in historical context. As Wilson says, British liberties depended not on written codes, but on the temper of the people, which has now been hugely altered by fears of terrorism, crime, child abuse and other perils exaggerated by newspapers and politicians. I also enjoyed Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out (Faber & Faber, £20), a myth-free account of that unjustly reviled decade, the 1970s. An unexpected treat was Tony Collins's A Social History of English Rugby Union (Routledge, £19.99), showing how the sport clung to amateurism and froze out the working classes for over a century: before 1996, under 10 per cent of England internationals had been to state schools, attended by most of the population.
Of new novels, John Banville's The Infinities (Picador, £14.99) was bewilderingly underappreciated; of old novels, it was gratifying to see the republication of Henry Green's Back (Dalkey Archive Press, £10.99). Of non-fiction published this year, I have been working my way around three collections - Gray's Anatomy by John Gray (Allen Lane, £25), The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain by Ian Jack (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) and finally Sex and Violence, Death and Silence: Encounters with Recent Art by my late friend Gordon Burn (Faber & Faber, £20).
Children of Dust (HarperOne, £16.99) by the first-time memoirist Ali Eteraz is a funny and frightening narrative of life as a fundamentalist Pakistani Muslim (and eventual refusenik). Dave Cullen's Columbine (Old Street, £9.99), a heartbreaking and thoroughly researched investigation into the notorious school shootings, is a must-read. Alain de Botton's Heathrow diary, A Week at the Airport (Profile Books, £8.99), and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) are further proof of his winning, intuitive and inquisitive style. I wish I were president of his fan club.
By an alarming coincidence, three people I know and like (and admire enormously) have published novels this year. Henry Porter's The Dying Light (Orion, £12.99) is a vibrant thriller dealing with some of the great concerns of his journalistic career: the surveillance state and the erosion of individual liberty. Although set in the future, it feels as up-to-the-minute as tomorrow's headlines. A Week in December (Hutchinson, £18.99) is Sebastian Faulks's first wholly contemporary novel, and he goes for broke, covering the gamut of greedy bankers, drugs and madness, jihadis, entrepreneurs, royalty and politicians. It's wholly engrossing. Robert Harris's Lustrum (Hutchinson, £18.99) is not just a profoundly researched novel about ancient Rome, but it also deals with such eternal dilemmas of political life as how to balance integrity and ambition. Who could he have been thinking of? To all journalists of my era, Harold Evans is a true hero and his new autobiography, My Paper Chase (Little, Brown, £25), is as vivid, passionate and optimistic as you would expect from this master of his craft.
Don Paterson's poetry collection Rain (Faber & Faber, £12.99) contains some great - and I do mean great - poems. He comes very close to Yeats at moments; Yeats without the hocus-pocus. First time through, I reread "The Day" three times, just to confirm it was as astounding as I suspected. Martin Stannard's Muriel Spark: the Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25) had a brave stab at tackling an extremely elusive subject. Though I may have learned a tad more about Spark's accounts than I wanted to, the arc of her life was fascinating to follow. She was not a woman to be patronised, and yet she was, constantly. The graphic novel Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers (Walker Books, £15), written by written by John Harris Dunning and drawn by Nikhil Singh, is an extraordinary, sexy, obsessive, decadent thing of wonder.
The book I most admired was Enlightening (Chatto & Windus, £35), the second volume of Isaiah Berlin's letters. Despite sycophancy towards the great and false flattery of friends, this is a dazzling display of intellectual pyrotechnics. One sometimes feels that Berlin is even cleverer than the philosophers whose ideas he seeks to illuminate. The book I most enjoyed was Tristram Hunt's rollicking life of Engels, The Frock-Coated Communist (Allen Lane, £25), a brave attempt to resurrect a once-influential revolutionary, none of whose books will ever be opened again.
Karen Armstrong's The Case for God (Bodley Head, £20) is not about pushing a particular religion, or getting caught up in shrill sectarian or doctrinal disputes. It transcends the oddly similar poles of religious fanaticism and muscular secularism. Armstrong is interested in the ineffable nature of spiritual experience that is shared across all the major religions. The neglected New York poet Samuel Menashe punched through this year. His New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, £12.99) are not religious, but they find words for "what cannot be spoken of". Though 85 years old, The Great Gatsby (Wordsworth Editions, £1.99) offers the best insights into the "Cameron Set" to date. Irrespective of the next few months, one thing is certain: it will all end in tears!
Fortunately, Dylan Jones has not produced a new book this year, so we have been spared anything as awful as Cameron on Cameron (Fourth Estate, £12.99), which did his subject a disservice. The big subject has been the recession and the financial crisis. Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold (Little, Brown, £18.99) and Andrew Gamble's The Spectre at the Feast (Palgrave Macmillan, £14.99) offered compelling complementary analyses. Otherwise, there have been three Liberal Democrat memoirs, from Shirley Williams (Virago, £20), Paddy Ashdown (Aurum Press, £20) and Vince Cable (Atlantic Books, £19.99), while Ion Trewin's vivid biography of Alan Clark (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25) showed what a dated, and ultimately marginal, figure he was. The book that is likely to last longest is Chris Mullin's account of ministerial and backbench life during the Blair years, A View from the Foothills (Profile Books, £20). In the year of Barack Obama's ups and, more recently, downs as US president, my book of the year is The Battle for America 2008 (Viking, £18.18) by the veteran Washington Post writers Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson. They have produced a classic election book spiced with anecdote and analysis. We will be lucky to get anything as good out of the 2010 election here.
My book of the year is Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice (Allen Lane, £25). For the past 40 years, political philosophers have held their discussions in the shade of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, £16.95). Many disagreed with Rawls, but they were still arguing within the lines that he'd traced out. Now, they may shift to Amartya Sen's pitch. Where Rawls wanted to create a perfect theory of justice, against which we could compare reality, Sen says there is no need for such a theory. Instead, he urges us to concentrate on flagrant injustice. He argues that equality is about more than resources: it's about capabilities. This insight is of fundamental importance to the left - it demands that we worry about power, not just money. We should aim for active equality, where people are equal because they are in charge of their lives, rather than accepting powerlessness and compensating for it through the tax system.
The biography I most enjoyed this year is The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings (John Murray, £25). It may not break new ground, but it tells its story - a sad one - with a narrative verve worthy of its subject. On the political front, the palm has to go to Charles Williams's life of the first modern prime minister, Harold Macmillan (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25) - a wonderful evocation of a complex and devious figure. In No Expenses Spared (Bantam, £16.99), two Daily Telegraph journalists, Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, make a respectable stab at putting the undoubted political scandal of the year in perspective.
A View from the Foothills (Profile Books, £20), Chris Mullin's account of his years as a junior minister under Tony Blair, reveals everything that is rotten at the heart of British government under all parties. Mullin demonstrates how the 80 junior ministerial jobs are tools of patronage, used to keep ambitious rival politicians in line. Even someone as clear in his politics as this struggles to persuade the civil service to accept the most minuscule change or reform. Even more interesting is how "The Man" (as Mullin refers to Blair) was so successful in using his charm to persuade people to vote for policies they considered to be not just wrong, but illegal and immoral. By contrast, Iain M Banks, in his novel Matter (Orbit, £7.99), depicts a distant future in which a benign civilisation called "The Culture" guides our destiny with the application of overwhelming force, rather than relying on charm. But it's unlikely any of his future Culture novels will reveal that the origin of this benign galactic superstate was New Labour.
D J Taylor
Sad old late fortysomething that I am, my cultural highlight of the year was the series of reunion concerts played by the post-punk legends Magazine. To accompany them came Helen Chase's thoroughly researched Magazine: the Biography (Northumbria University Press, £14.99). As well as offering first-hand accounts of the conception of such masterpieces as Real Life (1978) and The Correct Use of Soap (1980), this had the additional advantage of printing up its frontman Howard Devoto's lyrics - oblique despatches from a mental landscape into which bulk-standard popular music rarely strays, and a good deal more "poetic" than most of what passes for modern poetry.
I worry about journalism and what is happening to it, and so fell on Ian Jack's The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) in the manner of a thirsty worker falling on a long, cool glass of water. A selection of Jack's writing since 1989, this is a beady, sometimes moving book which proves that the finest journalism is worth paying for. From railway lines to the movies to a long-dead contralto, Jack takes you to places others ignore. When he is at his best, it is as if someone has switched on a light in a dark room - though the word "illuminating" actually doesn't even begin to describe it.
Britain, Europe and the Second World War still keep me busy. I read A L Kennedy's prizewinning but still insufficiently noticed novel Day (Vintage, £7.99), the story of Alfred Day, a tail-gunner, and otherwise an astonishing evocation of the blitzing of Hamburg from the air. Day is that rare thing: a work of literature. One of Kennedy's sources may have been W G Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction (Modern Library, £10.99), published in English after the author's untimely death in 2001. Although aimed primarily at a German audience, Sebald's essay on the 1943 bombing of Hamburg asks how to capture true horror when all human expression tends towards the norm.
My first choice is the mind-blowing Hitler's Empire by Mark Mazower (Penguin, £12.99), which suggests that by 1943 the Nazi empire was so crazily malfunctioning that it could not have long survived, even without western military intervention. Hitler's racial obsessions positively excluded the divide-and-rule policy on which all empires, in the end, have to depend. In other words, Britain did not really have to go to war. Jonathan Littell's equally mind-blowing The Kindly Ones (Chatto & Windus, £20), which won the Prix Goncourt, suggests the same conclusion, as his fictional account of an aristocratic SS sadist on the Eastern Front describes an empire on the brink of dissolution.
In Camus, a Romance (Grove Press, £25), Elizabeth Hawes achieves a much more intimate portrait of the great writer than previously rendered. Only in a life as conflicted as Camus's could the receipt of the Nobel Prize be seen as cause for embarrassment, anxiety attacks, the onset of depression and writer's block. At times, you feel that, despite the research, not enough direct information gets through to the reader. It is filtered through the mind of the overly self-involved author, but such is the nature of the study. We benefit as we begin to feel a little closer to the man himself as a result of Hawes's generous and heartfelt attachment to her subject. If you're searching for analysis of the novels and essays, look elsewhere, but if you want a measure of the man behind the work, this might be the best bet so far.
For me, as for many others, the novel of the year was Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, £18.99). How often do you read a novel that you want to begin again as soon as you've finished it? I also much enjoyed Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs (Faber & Faber, £16.99) and Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn (Viking, £17.99). My favourite piece of non-fiction - although it's hard to categorise so baldly - was Iain Sinclair's Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire (Hamish Hamilton, £20), which sprawled and meandered as much as the borough's streets do, but with rather more beauty. Reading a book about where you live can be a fraught pleasure, but Sinclair made my neighbourhood seem both eminently recognisable and wonderfully strange at the same time.
The most intriguing book I read this year was the novel Cockroach (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) by Rawi Hage. Generally I don't read many novels, but this book had an unnerving and very real political mystery at its core, which is partly why it was also such a good thriller. It is the tale of a small-time thief, an immigrant to Montreal from a war-torn Arab country. We first meet our narrator when he has just tried to hang himself from a tree in a public park. The tale unfolds through his relationship with his therapist, which digs deeper and deeper into the buried trauma that has made him what he is today. He spooks his therapist by breaking into her house. But what he is really trying to do is establish his distance from his host society. Hage depicts Montreal as an icy and enigmatic city, packed with immigrants who use it as a refuge and hiding place. Although the central motif is obviously borrowed from Kafka - the narrator hallucinates himself as an insect - the lurid and wildly poetic style owes much to Céline and Burroughs. Most significantly, this angry, venomous book offers no cosy view of the immigrant experience of the west: but that is precisely why it is so effective.
Peter H Wilson's Europe's Tragedy: a History of the Thirty Years War (Allen Lane, £35) is a monumental work of history: vast in scope, sweeping in its narrative, sensible and humane in its judgements and illustrated with enough maps and battle plans to satisfy every reader's inner 12-year-old schoolboy. This is historical narrative at its grandest: terrific stuff. On a lighter note, I can't get enough of Andrew Martin's Edwardian railway detective novels, written with wonderful lightness of touch and an eye for black comedy. In the latest, Last Train to Scarborough (Faber & Faber, £12.99), he is on tremendous form, the atmosphere thick as fog. And I loved the latest instalment of Malcolm Pryce's hilarious experiment in "Welsh noir", From Aberystwyth With Love (Bloomsbury, £11.99). I might have enjoyed my childhood holidays a bit more if I'd known that the town was so interesting. Only a bit, mind you.
Milan Kundera's Une rencontre (Gallimard, €17.90) forms a magnificent and imperishable trilogy with Testaments Betrayed (Faber & Faber, £9.99) and The Curtain (Faber & Faber, £12.99). Like the earlier books, it's a collection of essays that circles obsessively around what Kundera calls his "old themes and old loves" - the terrible seductions of political kitsch and the glories of central European modernism. As an essayist, Kundera has few equals, though Frank Kermode comes close. Kermode's Bury Place Papers (London Review of Books, £14.99) are a reminder that, throughout his career, he has avoided the déformations professionnelles of academic literary criticism. Kundera would surely approve.
A book from Amartya Sen would be an important event in any year. But the publication of The Idea of Justice (Allen Lane, £25) coincided with a crisis of confidence on the centre left of politics, just as economic and political circumstances indicated an urgent need for new thinking. Senmakes the case for a humanistic, plural liberalism, based on an assessment of the opportunities people have to lead good lives of their own choosing. He contrasts this to the approach of most liberal political philosophers during the past half-century, who have been concerned with finding the right rules, institutions and social contracts for a just society. Freedom, for Sen, is "the power to do something", rather than attendance to a set of rules. The search by so many philosophers for "spotless justice" makes for interesting seminar room discussions. But for a serious assault on inequalities in power and capability, Sen is the wiser guide.
Laura Cumming's A Face to the World: on Self-Portraits (HarperPress, £30) is the perfect Christmas present for anyone with an interest in art history. But perhaps that makes it sound too dry. After all, art historians, as she writes in her introduction, "do not concern themselves much with the power of art to move, disturb, inspire, indeed to affect the emotions of the viewer" - and yet these are the very qualities that Cumming addresses head-on. She worries away at the hidden forces which have driven so many different artists to reveal themselves on canvas, and ranges widely but cogently over historical periods. It is an intensely readable book that is determined, above all, to speak its mind - her reverence for Velázquez and sorrowful disdain for Tracey Emin make a delicious tonic for our relativistic age.
Perhaps because last year I moved to Oxford, a city that is home to both the leading atheist Richard Dawkins and an awful lot of intellectuals who still go to church, my interest in religion has been tickled. The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does It Continue? (Yale University Press, £10.99) is a series of essays taken from lectures given at Yale in 2006. The intellectual bankruptcy of the "intelligent design" movement is well skewered, but the philosopher Alvin Plantinga gives Dawkins a clobbering, too. Many books are said to be thought-provoking; this truly is. I read it shortly after my neighbour Charles Foster's The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin (Hodder & Stoughton, £11.99), a sparkling and enjoyable but, to my mind, doomed attempt to make evolution, red in tooth and claw, compatible both with Genesis and a loving God.
Impossibly gentle and deceptively simple, Brooklyn (Viking, £17.99) gets my vote for book of the year. Deploying superhuman levels of restraint, Colm Toibin dramatizes the age-old conundrum of duty versus desire through the story of an Irish immigrant in 1950s America and somehow renders this conflict completely new. Much has been made of Paul Auster's influence on the narrative style of Chloe Aridjis in Books of Clouds (Chatto & Windus, £11.99), but her impartial, slightly caustic, narrator and the precision of her language reminded me of early Atwood. Tracing the listless days of a young woman living in Berlin, this brilliant debut novel charts the relationship between self and city seamlessly and is one of the most exact depictions of loneliness I've come across. Finally, although it's not out until April, Sam Willetts's superbly controlled and layered first collection - New Light for the Old Dark (Jonathan Cape, £10.00) - is a thrilling affirmation that there is nothing poetry can't do.
One of the most invidious aspects of modern bookselling is the way novels which fail to win or be shortlisted for prizes seem to disappear - almost as if they never existed in the first place. M J Hyland's masterly disquisition on the problem of motive This is How (Canongate Books, £12.99) was one such book. Another was Justin Cartwright's To Heaven by Water (Bloomsbury, £16.99) - a wise, witty novel about age and the only end of age which was every bit as good as his Richard and Judy-listed The Promise of Happiness (Bloomsbury, £7.99). Otherwise, I loved Adrian McKinty's Fifty Grand (Serpent's Tail, £10.99), a stand-alone thriller about a renegade Cuban cop from a writer best known for his hard-boiled Dead Trilogy.
In 1970, the young writer and dissident Rafik Schami was forced to flee Syria for Germany, never to return. The Dark Side of Love (Arabia Books, £12.99) is the extraordinary fruit of his half-a-lifetime's exile: a murder mystery that spirals into a secret history of Syria's turbulent 20th century. Its 304 chapters, interweaving tales of state brutality, family feuds and forbidden love, are as labyrinthine and absorbing as the ancient streets of Damascus they describe. But despite the complexities of his plot, Schami's prose (brilliantly translated from his adopted German by Andrea Bell) is clear, colourful and fairy-tale-wry: a famous bandit is so tiny "that if an egg fell out of his trouser pocket it wouldn't break when it hit the ground". The Dark Side of Love is a fittingly beautiful tribute to "the most beautiful city in the world".
Why can't the present be more like the future? Time was they wanted it Now. Owen Hatherley's Militant Modernism (0 Books, £9.99) would be insanely ambitious if he hadn't pulled off the seemingly impossible, compressed social, political and aesthetic analysis of modernist utopianism in a sizzling 160 pages. Ruskin: Gothic, Hatherley: modernism. Mind-blowing. Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman (0 Books, £7.99) was a welcome reminder that there is more to feminism than Either/Or (Pradettes apussyfooting in Jimmy Choos/Moms amoosehunting on the campaign trail). A rabblerousing joy to read.
Andrew Gelman's Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do (Princeton University Press, £12.95) crunched data on rich and poor voters in rich and poor states, came up with a geek's delight: a book that gets past the old red state/blue state chestnut, using a wealth of statistical graphics to back up its conclusions. Fabelhaft.
I rarely read biography, but two standout titles this year were Lowside of the Road: a Life of Tom Waits (Faber and Faber, £20.00) by Barney Hoskyns and The Frock-Coated Communist (Allen Lane, £25.00), Tristram Hunt's exhaustive study of Friedrich Engels. Waits is notoriously reclusive and uncooperative, but Hoskyns manages to tell a story with such warmth and intensity that you find yourself reaching for the bourbon whilst revisiting Nighthawks at the Diner. Engels is part of the fabric of my city - Manchester - and although his story has been well documented, Hunt manages to bring new life to a contradictory figure. Immensely readable and almost novelistic at times, this is quite simply, a great book. Among my favourite novels of the year have been Willy Vlautin's Lean on Pete (Faber and Faber, £12.99), which is possibly his bleakest yet, and Blood's a Rover (Century, £18.99), the final part of James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy. The book is long; the sentences short. It's like driving along a freeway with no brakes, while the occupant of the back seat is machine-gunning your windscreen for ten hours. It's an exhausting read but one you don't want to miss.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is an astonishing collection of short stories by the new star of the South Asian fiction, Daniyal Mueenuddin. The author's humane and humourous appreciation of rural life, seen from the point of view of the landlord, depicts a world familiar from "Sketches from a Huntsman's Album," but with the action transposed from the Russia steppe to the Pakistani Punjab. Like Turgenev, Mueenuddin creates a world peopled by rural folk, generously sketched with a wonderful freshness and lightness. Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin Putnam, £25.00) is an earthy, revelatory and brilliant book by one of the world's greatest Sanskrit scholars focussing on the relationship between myth and recorded history in Indian religion. Written for a general rather than an exclusively academic audience, the book was a surprise bestseller in India when it was published last month.
Sam Miller's Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) teems with strange stories and bizarre quiddities, rich discoveries and unexpected diversions that will delight Delhi lovers and baffle and amaze those who have so far remained oblivious to its erratic charms. Doggedly pursuing his subject through the meandering back lanes of the old city, its spiralling markets and its gleaming new highways, Sam Miller has created a book that is both a quest and a love letter, and one which is as pleasingly eccentric and anarchic as its subject. For me, though this was the year of Cormac McCarthy. Having for some reason never read him before, I devoured Blood Meridian (Picador, £7.99) during the summer holidays, and have been working through his back catalogue ever since. At the end of it, there is no question in my mind he is one of the two or three the greatest living American novelists, and that The Road (Picador, £7.99) for my money the greatest novel of the last decade.