The insider's view: The best books of 2007
Authors reveal their pick of this year's finest writing...
'Gold' by Dan Rhodes (Canongate Books, £9.99)
I've always enjoyed Rhodes's fiction, but this deceptively quiet book had a pathos and humour that elevated it above everything else he's written so far. Rhodes's writing combines a quirky sense of humour with an underlying desperation, and this depiction of a Japanese girl trying to understand the customs of a small Welsh town was both hilarious and heartbreaking. He's one of a small number of contemporary novelists who find beauty in the most straitened circumstances.
'White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties' by Dominic Sandbrook (Abacus, £12.99)
Dominic Sandbrook was not even alive during the years covered by his marvellously enjoyable White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. So he sees the age not through a haze of dope or nostalgia, but with brilliant clarity. His account is full of rich detail and illuminating quotation – the Daily Mail described rock'*'roll as "the Negro's revenge". And he shows that what Jim Callaghan called "the rising tide of permissiveness" was more a matter of symbolism than subversion. Reading Sandbrook's vivid pages, survivors of the Sixties will not only relive but reappraise their past.
'North Soho 999: A True Story of Gangs and Gun-Crime in 1940s London' by Paul Willetts (Dewi Lewis, £9.99)
This book is like one of the best black-and-white films – only it's a true account of a notorious London gun-crime in 1947. Guns were prevalent just after the war and times were hard – and it was Fabian of the Yard who solved the murder of a young garage-owner, Alec de Antiquis. This is so meticulously well-researched, and such a compulsive read, that you are taken straight back to those grey post-war streets of Soho and the days of " narks", "spivs" and "squealers", when detectives wore suits and ties and guns were found in the mud at Wapping. Unputdownable.
'Exit Ghost' by Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)
To use a baseball-ism, Philip Roth keeps hitting them right out of the park – and Exit Ghost continues the staggeringly good late career run of America's greatest living writer. The subject here is mortality – and, as such, life's absurd fragility. Nathan Zuckerman – Roth's alter ego – is now a seventysomething man who has withdrawn from the gamesmanship that is quotidian metropolitan life. Impotent after prostate cancer, he lives a closed-off existence in the Berkshires until a necessary medical procedure in New York leads him back into a flirtation with both the city and passions long suppressed. It's another virtuosic performance by Roth – funny, angry, and very much in tune with the tenuousness of all desires and needs.
'What Was Lost' by Catherine O'Flynn (Tindal Street Press, £8.99)
I was so delighted when What Was Lost got picked up by the Costa judges, because I loved it but nearly missed it. It's quite extraordinary. There's an amazing insight into the mind of a young girl, a very funny account of working in a high-street record store, an entirely sympathetic hero in the form of a security guard, a cracking mystery, a brilliant sense of place in the form of a modern shopping centre, and a ghost story to boot. Yes, it's a bit of a mish-mash, but I adored every page of it and recommend it to everyone– it's lovely when a terrific first novel doesn't slip through the cracks.
'Winnie and Wolf' by AN Wilson (Arrow Books, £8.99)
Do not be misled. In order to admire and appreciate AN Wilson's superb novel Winnie and Wolf, you emphatically do not have to feel warm towards Hitler or love Wagner. I do neither. In this tour de force of imagination and historical reconstruction, Wilson makes a credible human being out of a monster. His premise – that Hitler had an illegitimate daughter by Winifred Wagner, the composer's daughter-in-law – is a clever idea that links everything together. Unlike any other novel this year, and as well written as you would expect, it's a novel with substance. Booker longlisted.
'The Rebels' by Sandor Marai (Picador, £12.99)
Sandor Marai's The Rebels, published in 1930 and one of his best novels, has finally made it into English. In an unobvious, urbane, stoic, slipper-wearing Mittel Europa way, Marai can be regarded as the grandfather of punk; he told the Nazis, the Communists and any form of authority or power to, essentially, fuck off. Marai's only faith was in culture. The Rebels follows a teenage cabal in Marai's hometown of Kassa (now Kosice, in Slovakia) during the First World War, complete with Vivienne Westwood-style clobber. Stylish translation by George Szirtes.
'The Road Home' by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)
Old and New Europe meet in my two favourite novels of 2007. Rose Tremain's The Road Home tells the heart-rending story of Lev, an immigrant from an unnamed Eastern European country, whose bruising encounter with the greed, profligacy and vulgarity of Western society is mitigated by acts of great individual Vkindness. Adam Thorpe's Between Each Breath focuses on Jack Middleton, a successful British composer, whose happy marriage and secure existence are blown apart by his affair with Katya, a young Estonian violinist. Both tell vibrantly contemporary stories with classical elegance.
'Due Considerations' by John Updike (Hamish Hamilton, £30)
In November, I finally read a book published in 2007 that I couldn't put down. And the least expected kind of book – Due Considerations by John Updike, 700 pages on the most disparate subjects, from the Pentateuch to Coco Chanel, Kierkegaard to baseball. The wonderful thing about Updike the essayist is how his mixture of crisp chronicle and creative description, and his enthusiasm and precision, reveal a man determined to overcome his atavistic fears by offering an elegant description of more or less the whole world.
'Trespass' by Valerie Martin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99)
Trespass is a marvellously insightful contemplation of modern liberal America in the period between September 11 and the start of the Iraq war. This is one of those rare novels that is intrinsically political while never compromising the reality of its complex characters. The story of a mother's displacement by her only son's new love, the clever daughter of a Croatian immigrant family, is observed with steely honesty and huge compassion, and is wonderful on family dynamics. A subtle, resonating read.
'Agatha Christie: An English Mystery' by Laura Thompson (Headline Review, £8.99)
I've had a love affair with Agatha Christie since I was a teenager, so approached this biography with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Written with access to diaries, letters and Christie's family, Thompson has perfectly captured the private and public Agatha, the writer and the woman, and backs up her analysis with a fabulously thorough knowledge of the texts.
'Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick' by Jenny Uglow (Faber and Faber, £9.99)
Reading the biography of a much-loved artist is a dicey business. All too often one discovers that the man himself was a ruthless, vain, faithless, greedy drunk whose career was littered with human casualties. What a joy, then, to read Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow. Since childhood, I have adored Bewick's exquisite woodcuts of animals and birds, but knew nothing of the man. Now he is revealed as deeply modest, deeply humane, a great naturalist and a social reformer. The illustrations, of course, are magical.
'Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life' by Dominic Dromgoole (Penguin, £8.99)
I empathised enormously with the subtitle of this book, for that has happened to me too. It's extraordinary the way Shakespeare does this to people, and it is very difficult to write about it convincingly. This lyrical memoir is persuasive, funny, moving, passionate and insightful.
'Playing Politics With Terrorism', edited by George Kassimeris (C Hurst & Co, £16.50)
Contributors to this book suggest that terrorism itself has been hijacked by a bunch of neocons of all nationalities with a nefarious agenda. Paranoia, exaggeration, dubious research, false narratives and manipulation of public opinion have replaced sound judgements based on facts. There are huge profits to be made from terrorism, and they are made at the expense of civil liberties and democratic culture. Brilliant, mind-opening stuff.
'War and Peace', trans Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage Classics, £20)
My favourite book of 2007 is this new translation of War and Peace. I first read Tolstoy's epic at university, but retained only a slightly blurred and daunted respect. I'm relishing the incomparable mix of vivid description, penetrating social comment and philosophy. Translators give their wits and craft selflessly in the service of others' work; this is a triumph of fidelity and unpretentiousness.
'Why Do People Get Ill? Exploring the Mind-body Connection' by Darian Leader and David Corfield (Penguin, £8.99)
Why Do People Get Ill? is a fascinating insight into the relationship between the mind and the body, and between medicine and thinking and feeling. With perceptive case studies, this book attacks the way the medical world separates illness from the human psyche. It explores how illness may be a solution or, indeed, a refuge for some people. In an era where the mind is treated with drugs or cognitive behavioural techniques, it argues that the simple act of talking and listening – a concept originally proposed by Freud – has been lost. In fact, such an approach is even considered radical today. And yet, the mind is where an individual's subjectivity and individuality resides – which is what makes it such a compelling topic.
'Coconut Chaos' by Diana Souhami (Phoenix, £8.99); 'Girl Meets Boy' by Ali Smith (Canongate, £12.99)
In Coconut Chaos, travelogue to Pitcairn meets historical analysis of Fletcher Christian; Mutiny on the Bounty meets True Life Romance; eccentric aristocrat meets personal memoir. Brave, clever and very funny. Souhami is a risk-taking writer, and that's what I look for. I also loved Girl Meets Boy, the wittiest, wackiest, wonderfully written re-telling of the myth of Iphis and Ianthe for the Canongate Myth Series. Alive with ideas, bursting with creative energy. Great writing makes for great reading, and it cheers me up just because it is so good. That's why I love Ali Smith.
'The Ghost' by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £18.99)
Perhaps because I make most of my living as a ghost writer, I greatly enjoyed The Ghost by Robert Harris. There are no prizes for guessing the identity of our hero's client, a smarmy ex-PM with a more intelligent wife, an ice-cool PA and a bully-boy press officer (who is dead before the end of the first chapter). But that's most of the fun, as Harris gets away with a satirical critique that sails close to libel. By the end, the book feels like a huge joke, but a gripping, well executed and clever one.
'Young Stalin' by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Phoenix, £9.99)
Not only does this book tell a fascinating, and hitherto largely unknown, story; it shows up the stuff of history as the mixture of banality and caprice that it is. Reading the adventures of this pretty second-rate hoodlum who went on to become a first-rate monster, and who would exert a greater, more evil influence on the entire world than any other man in the 20th century, one can only gasp at the role played by chance in the making of history. An extraordinary book.
'Noble Hounds and Dear Companions: The Royal Photograph Collection' by Sophie Gordon (Royal Collection Enterprises, £9.99)
Two of my favourite things – dogs and the Royal Family – brought together charmingly. Victoria and Albert took a greyhound on honeymoon – and for these formal people, imagine the relief of having something to talk about! The photographs are stunning. Unlike many history picture-books, this strikes the right balance between text and images. Edward VII had a badly behaved terrier called Caesar, whom he took to his cabinet meetings. Caesar walked behind his coffin. Then there is the Queen, almost skipping with her corgis. For these people, it is the simplicity of their relationships with their dogs, who ask nothing of them, which is so completely joyous.
'The Presence' by Dannie Abse (Hutchinson, £15.99); 'Diary of a Bad Year' by JM Coetzee (Harvill Secker, £16.99)
How can I choose between the poet Abse's supple, poignant and entirely real journal of the time after his wife's death and JM Coetzee's fictional journal? Coetzee has always loved the polish, and risked the chill, of artifice. Actually, the two books have a lot in common. Abse tries to find a meaning to life without his beloved Joan: Coetzee's hero is struggling to bear the loss of the warmth of his muse Anya. Both men love women, and both books are by very, very good writers.
'More Time for Politics' by Tony Benn (Hutchinson, £20)
I've been reading a lot of nonfiction this year. This latest instalment of Tony Benn's diaries was a delight and an inspiration. Fiercely intelligent, warm, humane and profoundly moving in places. As for fiction, this year saw a number of striking short-story collections. Clare Wigfall's The Loudest Sound and Nothing introduced a writer of skill and playfulness.
'War and Peace', trans Anthony Briggs (Penguin Classics, £10.99)
I've been waiting for a fresh version of War and Peace for many years, and Anthony Briggs's sharp new translation, in paperback, is a delight. I haven't read the Pevear and Volokhonsky yet, but it's hard to imagine a more accessible entry into this inexhaustible book. Tolstoy's mix of dramatic human vignettes with the drift of history is beautifully rendered.
'Jacky Daydream' by Jacqueline Wilson (Corgi Yearling, £5.99)
Authors are always intrigued to learn of the childhood symptoms that lead other authors into this tragic profession. Wilson had a largely uneventful upbringing in Kingston-upon-Thames. But, as in her novels, she reveals the extraordinary in the ordinary. Trips to the seaside, playing with dolls, and exploiting her local library are darkened by parental rows, daydreams and only-child anxieties. There are clues to her success: perfect recall of her childhood, relentless reading, and a mum whose expectations she could never live up to; her mother has never picked up one of her books, we learn.
'Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets the West' by Imran Ahmad (Aurum Press , £12.99)
My favourite book of 2007 is this memoir of a Muslim boy, born in Pakistan, who moves to London at the age of one in the 1960s. With his Islamic identity and desire to embrace the West, the book paints a beautiful picture of growing up in a strange culture. The theology is a bit naive in places, but the end result is unforgettable.
'The Mabinogion' by Sioned Davies (OUP, £12.99)
There's a strong literary current flowing back to the earliest stories – and not only to Beowulf. In a rich year, I'm enthralled by this new version of the Welsh cycle. Davies's prose is stark and fierce, the laconic dialogue spine-tingling, and she makes the page sing when the gifts of a hero are listed or the elements of a heroine's beauty conjured ("whiter were her breasts than the breast of white swan"). It's a helpful edition, too, with map, glossary and guide to pronunciation.