The year in books: who read what in 2006

Alice Munro and Michael Longley were among the names that kept cropping up when Belinda McKeon asked readers to pick their books…

Alice Munro and Michael Longley were among the names that kept cropping up when Belinda McKeonasked readers to pick their books of the year

Mary Hanafin

I really enjoyed Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss(Hamish Hamilton, £16.99 ). Having visited India this year, I feel the book captures and celebrates the diversity and richness of its people. Desai's observations of Sai, her grandfather, the Judge, his cook, and the cook's son Biju are wonderful, and her portrayal of the dog and cat in the novel had me laughing out loud. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas(David Fickling, £10.99), by John Boyne, can be found in the children's section of bookstores, but its dark theme of a concentration camp is more relevant to adults. Hard to say it is enjoyable, but it is certainly worth reading. Through a Glass Darkly, by Donna Leon (Heinemann, £15.99), was a good summer read of intrigue in the glass industry on the island of Murano in Venice. Each week Olivia O'Leary can be seen observing in the Dáil gallery and her musings can be heard on RTÉ. Her sharp wit and keen insights can now be read in Party Animals(O'Brien Press, €11.95 ), a great Christmas gift for any politics junkie. I recently launched Memories of Foxrock & Cabinteely, edited by Liam Clare and Padraig Laffan (Nonsuch Ireland, €17.99), a treasure trove of reflections on the history of these communities - a wonderful read. • Mary Hanafin is the Minister for Education and Science

Adam Sisman


My book of the year is Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), an entertaining work superbly edited by Richard Davenport-Hines, who has also contributed a beautifully written introduction. I am at work on Trevor-Roper's biography and I fear that Davenport-Hines has already said much of what needs to be said about him, more elegantly and succinctly than anything I will be able to produce. Robert Harris's Imperium (Hutchinson, £17.99) is a further step forward by this brilliant man who excels in everything he writes. I also particularly enjoyed two volumes in a new series, Books that Shook the World: Janet Browne's excellent introduction to Darwin's Origin of Speciesand Francis Wheen's exhilarating primer on Marx's Das Kapital(Atlantic Books, £9.99 each). The book I most look forward to reading is Zachary Leader's The Life of Kingsley Amis(Cape, £25). • Adam Sisman's The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridgewas published in October by HarperCollins

Adrian Hardiman

Two of 2006's most entertaining books are also sound works of history: The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean (Chatto & Windus, £25), by John Julius Norwich, and T he Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs Disraeli(Hutchinson, £20), by Richard Aldous. A need to converse intelligibly with my science-student son led me to The Best American Science Writing 2006, edited by Atul Gawande (Harper Perennial, $14.95). Josephine Hart's book and CD on how and why to read poetry, Catching Life by the Throat(Virago, £15), is a gem. The best work of eight poets, each with a separate introduction, it will charm anyone who has ever read poetry. Of mainly legal interest is Reflections on Law and History,edited by Norma Dawson (Four Courts Press, €45), though it has a superb sidelight on 1916 by Felix Larkin. Finally, there is Walking to Emmaus(Continuum, £9.99), by Eamon Duffy. Few clerics would now publish a book of sermons but Duffy, a layman and distinguished Cambridge academic, has done so. It is remarkable, and not only for Johnsonian reasons. • Adrian Hardiman is a Supreme Court judge and a Joycean

Alan Warner

This year the black magic misanthropy of Irvine Welsh's The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs(Cape, £10.99) amused me. I was struck by Albert Sanchez Pinol's eerie and memorable Cold Skin(Canongate, £9.99), and Daniel Kadar's travelogue, Lost Cosmonaut(Faber, £12.99), was so hilarious I initially presumed it was fiction. Kadar beat Borat to it in a much more subtle manner. However, two new novels were easily compelling whilst also being serious art. Cormac McCarthy's oppressive and very moving The Road(Picador, £16.99) frightened and traumatised, while Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me(Faber, £16.99) was a virtuoso vision of a contemporary priest who is inappropriately accused by an immoral community. That this novel wasn't a Booker finalist is both laughable and deeply worrying. Also John Pilger's truly "political" essays, Freedom Next Time(Bantam, £17.99), should be placed in our laps and our eyes should be stapled open. • Alan Warner's novel, The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven, was published by Cape in May

Alice Hogge

This year I've been somewhat lost in Victorian novels, but a few new books have come my way. I thoroughly enjoyed Horatio Clare's Running for the Hills(John Murray, £14.99), his account of growing up on a remote sheep farm in Wales. He writes about the disintegration of his parents' marriage with a wonderfully clear and unsentimental eye, and his descriptions of the landscape and wildlife around him are fresh and vivid. I have read and re-read Clare Asquith's Shadowplay(Public Affairs, £9.99), the first time for work, the second for pleasure. Asquith examines William Shakespeare's plays in the context of the religious upheavals of his age and comes up with a challenging reappraisal of his life and work. It has proved to be a controversial book in England, which is, perhaps, recommendation in itself. Lastly, I'm part way through - and delighting in - Vic Gatrell's City of Laughter(Atlantic Books, £30). The subtitle, Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, says it all really. • Alice Hogge won the Glen Dimplex New Writer of the Year award last month for God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot, published by Harper Perennial

Alice McDermott

In a year when I completed, published and promoted my sixth novel here in the US - all the while teaching at Johns Hopkins University and doing my best at the wife-and-mother business - I've relied on a few tried and true authors, literary staples, if you will, for my pleasure reading. Philip Roth's Everyman(Cape, £10) is a marvellous, succinct but breathtaking, short novel, surely one of his best. Anne Tyler's Digging to America(Chatto & Windus, £16.99) offers a sweeter tale of family and culture, at a more leisurely pace. One first novel I greatly enjoyed was Marie Arana's Cellophane(Dial Press, $24), which offers a touch of magic realism as it tells the story of the invention of that "fragile, pellucid, mysterious" substance and its effects, comic and harrowing, on one Peruvian family. Living in Washington DC, I find a new political tract in my mail every other day, but Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11(Simon & Schuster, £18.99) remains memorable, and disheartening. • Alice McDermott's novel, After This, was published by Farrar Straus Giroux (US) in September

Andrew Nugent

Simon Schama's Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution(BBC Books, £8.99) is a shameful history magnificently told. The Christ-like face of a young African in chains on the front cover will haunt you. By association of ideas, Irene Lynch's Beyond Faith and Adventure(ICDL, €40) is the story of Irish missionaries in Nigeria, told by themselves. At a time when one is tempted to believe there is nothing left to be proud of in the Irish Church, this book tells a different story. Bill Bryson describes his childhood in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid(Doubleday, £18.99): "My kid days were pretty good ones. My parents were patient and kind and approximately normal. They didn't chain me in the cellar. They didn't call me 'It'. I was born a boy and allowed to stay that way . . ." Nowadays, an unhappy childhood seems almost mandatory. I really enjoyed this book. John Cornwell's Seminary Boy(Fourth Estate, £15.99) is a different, evocative, take on the 1950s, when growing up in a junior seminary seemed preferable to life in a dysfunctional family. • Andrew Nugent, OSB, is prior of Glenstal Abbey. His thriller, The Four Courts Mystery, was published by Hodder Headline in July

Andrew Motion

Michael Longley's Collected Poems(Cape, £25) is a marvellous book, in which almost every page shows him combining Classical dignity and robustness with Romantic delicacy of observation and phrasing. It means - among other things - that we are given the thrill of looking down long perspectives, as well as the more intimate pleasure of enjoying local details. Something similar could be said about the work of Thomas Bewick, whose career is mapped with great sensitivity and sympathy by Jenny Uglow in Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick(Faber, £20); like all her biographies (and like Longley's poems), it's smartly alert to the mood of the times, as well as the temper of a highly individual mind. • Andrew Motion is the UK Poet Laureate. In the Blood: A Memoir of My Childhoodwas published by Faber in September

Bernard MacLaverty

These days I find that I read less and less fiction. Two great collections of poetry this year were Robin Robertson's Swithering(Picador, £8.99) and Vicki Feaver's The Book of Blood(Cape, £9). And two factual books I enjoyed were A Secret Map of Ireland(New Island, €13.99) by The Irish Times's very own Rosita Boland - on top form - and a murder story from my childhood vividly resurrected by Tom McAlindon as Bloodstains in Ulster: The Notorious Case of Robert the Painter(The Liffey Press, €11.95). I was seven years old when the nightmare events of this book happened two streets away. A well-written tale from start to finish, it's a terrific read. • Bernard MacLaverty's collection of stories, Matters of Life and Death, was published in May by Cape

Caitríona O'Reilly

This year I have enjoyed Justin Quinn's Waves and Trees(Gallery, €11.95 ) for its delicate, adept pastoral; also Robin Robertson's Swithering, which is an unabashed and powerful affirmation of the lyric mode in poetry. The Book of Bloodis Vicki Feaver's third collection, and a worthy successor to The Handless Maiden(1994). The poems are sensuous and disturbing and full of a kind of wise excitement at the world. Enticing and rewarding. • Caitríona O'Reilly's second collection of poems, The Sea Cabinet, was published in February by Bloodaxe

Claire Tomalin

Alice Munro was born to tell stories, and in The View from Castle Rock(Chatto & Windus, £15.99), even fragments of narrative and briefly sketched characters leap to life as she writes of her Scots ancestors, their crossing of the Atlantic to settle in Canada, and the lives and loves of their descendants. She commands attention with her apparent simplicity, paring her material and concentrating her effects, and there is no one to match her.

Peter Hennessy packs a huge amount of political and social detail into his great, solid, deeply researched history of Britain in the 1950s, Having it So Good(Allen Lane, £30), always keeping a warm, lively narrative and throwing in surprises. There are also two scintillating biographies of minor yet marvellous 20th-century figures: Leonard Woolf is brought centre-stage by Victoria Glendinning in Leonard Woolf(Simon & Schuster, £25), and Ernest Jones, Freud's disciple, friend and biographer, behaves outrageously throughout much of Brenda Maddox's affectionate portrait in Freud's Wizard: The Enigma of Ernest Jones(John Murray, £25). • Claire Tomalin's biography, Thomas Hardy: The Time-torn Man, was published by Viking in October

Colm Tóibín

John McGahern's Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories(Faber, £16.99) is an essential book for anyone who loves good writing. The stories are written with enormous care for cadence and with an intense emotional precision. The longest story, The Country Funeral, ranks with Amongst Womenas McGahern's best piece of fiction. Bernard MacLaverty's latest collection of stories, Matters of Life and Death (Cape, £16.99), contains some of MacLaverty's finest work, full of the mixture of irony and sympathy which is his hallmark. In poetry, Don Paterson's Orpheus (Faber, £12.99), a version of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, is faithful to Paterson's own voice as well as to the edginess and complexity and sheer beauty of the original. Anne Carson's Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides(New York Review of Books, $19.95) is a brilliantly fluent translation with superbly combative and intelligent introductions to the plays. • Colm Tóibín's novel, The Master, won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award in June. His collection of stories, Mothers and Sons, was published by Picador in September

Declan Meade

I took great pleasure this year in seeing Philip Ó Ceallaigh's Notes From A Turkish Whorehouse(Penguin Ireland, € 9.99) appear. Philip began sending us stories in 1999, so I've some idea of how hard-earned and well-deserved his success has been. The arrival of new stories by Alice Munro is always an event for me. The View from Castle Rock, like all her work, is spellbinding. Similarly, I love Kerry Hardie's poetry, and her latest collection, The Silence Came Close(Gallery, €11.95), was a must-purchase - and the Gallery Press produces beautiful clothbound editions. Last up would be Edna O'Brien's The Light of Evening(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99) - she knows a thing or two about casting spells too.  • Declan Meade is the editor of the Stinging Flymagazine. He edited These are Our Lives, an anthology of new short stories published by Stinging Fly Press in June

Anne Fogarty

Ronan Bennett's Zugzwang, serialised by the Observer, is a compellingly realised historical fiction by an accomplished novelist. Set in St Petersburg during the 1914 chess championship, the novel explores the conflict between political radicalism and state control. In Fateless(Vintage, £6.99), Hungarian Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész reformulates the Holocaust narrative, raising disturbing questions about our readiness to erase traumatic memories of the past. Margaret Mills Harper's Wisdom of Two: The Spiritual and Literary Collaboration of George and WB Yeats(Oxford University Press, £50) is a fascinating exploration of a unique creative partnership. It reinstates George Yeats as an esoteric philosopher in her own right. In a productive year for Irish poetry, Caitríona O'Reilly's exacting probings of vision and landscape in The Sea Cabinet(Bloodaxe, £7.95) and Dorothy Molloy's unflinching dissections of illness and femininity in Gethsemane Day(Faber, £8.99) were especially rewarding.  • Anne Fogarty was this year appointed first professor of James Joyce Studies at University College Dublin

John Banville

Poetry continues to be the poor relation of contemporary literature, so it is a pleasure to be able to set two books of verse at the head of my 2006 list. Michael Longley's Collected Poemsbrings together in one beautifully designed volume the work of this marvellous poet, reminding us, if we needed reminding, of the authority of his voice and the beauty of his line. Robin Robertson's Switheringsees this Scots poet come into the full glory of his powers - is there anyone writing at the moment whose eye is more precise and whose command of imagery is as seductive? In fiction, I cannot imagine that anything better than Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land(Bloomsbury, £17.99) has appeared in the past year - indeed, in the past 10 years, since its predecessor, Independence Day. A masterpiece. • Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black, the first in a series of thrillers by John Banville (under a pseudonym) was published this autumn by Picador

John Boyne

Two novels and a book of short stories stood out for me as the finest fiction offerings this year. American writer Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children(Picador, £14.99) is a profound, moving examination of American lives in the months leading up to and immediately following 9/11, while Jane Harris's debut novel, The Observations(Faber, £12.99), contains the most lively and energetic narrative voice of the year in Bessy Buckley, a servant girl in 19th-century Scotland. I read Colm Tóibín's Mothers and Sons(Picador, £12.99) slowly, wanting to savour each story and every sentence from our finest prose writer. My favourite non-fiction book was Rudolph Chelminski's The Perfectionist(Penguin, £7.99), a study of Bernard Loiseau, a French chef who committed suicide when the pressure of losing his three Michelin stars overwhelmed him. His passion for food is brought to life in a highly readable but tragic biography. • John Boyne's The Boy in The Striped Pyjamaswas published by Random House in January. In October, Penguin published his fifth novel, Next of Kin

John Fanning

The best business book to come my way during 2006 was The Hothouse Effect(Amacom, $27.95) by American professor of management Barton Kunstler, which deals comprehensively with the currently fashionable subject of creativity in the workplace and includes imaginative case studies from fifth-century Athens, renaissance Florence and the 1950s New York jazz scene. Fans of Olivia O'Leary's wickedly incisive 5-7 Liveessays will welcome their collection in Party Animalsand savour throwaway gems such as describing the next election as a contest to manage "the loot of the boom". The best surprise of the year was The Rebel Sell(Capstone, £8.99) by two Canadian academics, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, who take us on a wide-ranging philosophic review of how the counterculture of the 1960s descended into today's consumer culture and, in the process, substituted a preoccupation with alternative medicine and free-range chicken for a concern for increasing inequality. Thomas Kinsella's A Dublin Documentary(O'Brien Press, €19.95), bringing together many of his poems about the Liberties, with evocative period photographs, should bring Dublin's greatest poet the audience he richly deserves. • John Fanning's The Importance of Being Branded: An Irish Perspective, was published by Liffey Press in May

John Kelly

Patrick McCabe's Winterwood(Bloomsbury, £12.99) is an extraordinary gothic tale. As you might expect from McCabe, it's murky, disturbing stuff, but there is something different about this one. With the volume turned down, the effect is even more chilling. I'm a huge admirer of The Butcher Boyand The Dead School, so I don't say lightly that I think that Winterwood is perhaps his finest novel. And They All Sang, by Studs Terkel (Granta, £15.99), is a delight for anybody interested in music and the potential of radio. Terkel, who hosted a radio show for WFMT in Chicago for 50 years, is America's greatest oral historian. The book is a collection of 40 interviews from the show with a spectacular array of musicians and singers, including Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Dizzy Gillespie, Aaron Copland, Segovia, Tito Gobbi, Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin. Indispensable stuff from the glory days of radio. District and Circle(Faber, £8.99), by Seamus Heaney, is a redemptive marvel. Period. • John Kelly presents The JK Ensemble on RTÉ Lyric FM and The View on RTÉ television

Kate Holmquist

The bestselling novels which lingered, and inspired me, feature characters at odds with the world, asking "who am I?" The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards (Viking, £7.99), so beautifully written I had to read and re-read, is about a social climbing doctor who gives away his Down Syndrome daughter at birth, then spends the rest of his life coping with the devastating consequences for everyone around him. Marian Keyes's Anybody Out There(Poolbeg, €19.99) is a devastatingly wise exploration of the grieving process, as a young widow finds her life erased in one moment of tragedy. Alison Jameson's divine first novel, This Man and Me(Penguin Ireland, €13.99) shows a woman's sexual adventures gradually guiding her back to the integrity of that first kiss with that first boy. Anne Tyler's novels are all situated in Baltimore, where I grew up, giving me the double pleasure of the best prose in English combined with references to familiar places that bring me "home". Digging to America, about two families who adopt Chinese babies, seems to have not much happening besides cooking, yet everything happens - a fabulously nuanced sleight of pen. • Kate Holmquist's novel, The Glass Room, was published by Penguin Ireland in September

Louis de Paor

The linguistic high jinks and formal experiment of Biddy Jenkinson's Oíche Bhealtaine(Coiscéim, €7.50), and Colm Breathnach's Chiaroscuro(Coiscéim, €7.50) confirm their reputations as two of Ireland's finest contemporary poets, while Greg Delanty's Collected Poems(Carcanet, £29.50) show the assurance of a poet hitting his stride in mid-career. Bríona Nic Dhiarmada's Téacs Baineann, Téacs Mná(An Clóchomhar, €10) applies feminist theory to the work of Nuala Ní Dhomhaill without ever losing sight of the poems themselves. Alan Titley's Fables, Stories and Parabolas, is reprehensibly brilliant, as is Gerry Murphy's End of Part One: New and Selected Poems(Dedalus, €16 ). Folklorist Henry Glassie's The Stars of Ballymenone(Indiana University Press, $25) is full of insight into the everyday rituals and humanity of ordinary people in a Border community during the Troubles, while Iraqi exile and Cúirt visitor Dunya Mikhail's The War Works Hard( New Directions, £9.95) should be required reading for all our political "leaders" who continue to sanction the use of Shannon Airport by the US military. • Louis de Paor's publications this year include Dhá Scéal/Two Stories, translated with Lochlainn Ó Tuairisc and Mike McCormack (Arlen House), and The Gaelic Hit Factory(EMI, October), a recording of songs and poems, co-written with John Spillane

Michael Longley

Poet friends have produced marvellous collections this year. It would be invidious to choose from among them. The Ulster Anthology, edited by Patricia Craig (Blackstaff Press, £25), completes, with her earlier Oxford Book of Ireland and Belfast Anthology, an extraordinary triptych. "Northern Ireland provides much to lament but also much to cherish," she says in her sparkling introduction. Hundreds of often unpredictable extracts - poetry and prose - are subtly stitched together into a complicated quilt for our wounded province. "The boundary region between established truth and unstable imaginings is my preferred territory," Tim Robinson says in Connemara: Listening to the Wind(Penguin Ireland, £20), his brilliant companion to his masterpiece, Stones of Aran. Robinson's attentiveness is preternatural. It's as though the mental habits of John Clare and Wittgenstein combine in one astonishing mind. His new book provides further evidence that he is one of our greatest writers. • Michael Longley's Collected Poems was published by Cape in November

Niall MacMonagle

I really admired and enjoyed Claire Kilroy's Tenderwire(Faber, £10.99), a thriller-romance set in New York. "Life is so big as to be unmanageable, so small as to be inescapable" for Irish violinist Eva Tyne, whose sharp voice and dodgy experiences make for a fresh, different, brilliant novel. Melvyn Bragg's stimulating, engaging 12 Books That Changed the World( Hodder & Stoughton, £20) is an intellectual booster, crediting and honouring the brilliance of minds that shaped the way we live now. In Alice Munro's The View from Castle Rock, memoir and fiction merge in hallmark Munro: assured, sympathetic, enriching storytelling. Garrett Cormican's Camille Souter: the Mirror and The Sea(Whyte's, £40) is a sumptuous, magnificent major achievement and captures an elusive genius. A revelation. A celebration. A must. For poetry aficionados, there's no beating Dennis O'Driscoll's sharp-eyed, wide-ranging The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations(Bloodaxe, £9.95) and at year's end comes Michael Longley's rich harvest, his Collected Poems. This wise, tender, beautifully cadenced work embraces man and nature, war and peace. A book to slow down with. • Niall MacMonagle edited Lifelines: New and Collected, compiled by Wesley College pupils and published this autumn by TownHouse

Olivia O'Leary

Frail care is what they give you when you're old and handicapped. JM Coetzee's Slow Man(Vintage Books, £7.99) captures the humiliation of it, the struggle to be a player still, not just a patient. We're all heading there. Kevin Myers's memoir, Watching the Door(Lilliput, €20), is a sharp reminder of how it used to be in Northern Ireland - black, brutal and unbearably sad. In Kerry Hardie's new collection, The Silence Came Close,she wants to be young and fleshy: "I want to have dense skin, an arse that sways/ To feel my breasts rest heavy in my hands." Intimate poems. Earthy and close. I come from a granite county, from the boulders on Mount Leinster to the cut stone locks of the Grand Canal. Michael J Conry captures it all in Carlow Granite: Years of History Written in Stone(Chapelstown Press, €45), a wonderful compendium of Co Carlow's granite wonders. • Olivia O'Leary's Party Animalswas published by O'Brien Press in October

Patrick McCabe

The Phoenix Park Murders, by Senan Molony (Mercier Press, €12.99), is a gripping account of conspiracy, betrayal and retribution. Its winding gothic alleyways stretch right down to our own time and it has the hypnotic, compelling drive of the best thrillers. I enjoyed After the Victorians(Arrow, £9.95), by AN Wilson, and am currently devouring everything Gordon Burns has ever written - having, shamefully, just discovered him. (Another book which stunned me was Emlyn Williams's Beyond Belief, famous in its time, and beautifully written, despite its horrific subject matter, the dark underbelly of the Swinging Sixties.) My book of the year, though, is Greenbeat, by Daragh O'Halloran (Brehon, €18.99), a fab journey through the caverns of Dublin's 1960s rhythm and blues culture: get with it, daddy-o, it's a gas. • Patrick McCabe's Winterwoodwas published in November by Bloomsbury

Peter Carey

I read Donald Antrim's The Afterlife(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $21) with admiration, This must have been a difficult book to write - the story of the author's relationship with his exasperating, beloved, impossible, alcoholic mother, but he performs the dance artfully. Formally perfect, filled with grace, wit, and the only sort of love that's worth offering. Jonathan Franzen's T he Discomfort Zone: A Personal History(Fourth Estate, £16.99) has a similar lucid, clear-eyed quality. I have seen it wildly underestimated by some reviewers (although not by Denis Donoghue, I was pleased to see). Maybe it was the Oprah fuss or just plain envy that blinded some otherwise smart people to Franzen's huge talent. This will be clear in time and The Discomfort Zonewill be seen as the very large achievement that it is. • Peter Carey's novel, Theft: A Love Story, was published in June by Faber

Richard Aldous

Everyone I know seems to be reading Sacred Causes(Harper Press, £25), by Michael Burleigh - and with good reason. Burleigh's intelligent and provocative look at how religion has influenced politics and power in the last 100 years could hardly be more topical. The Friendship(HarperCollins, £20), by Adam Sisman, is a stirring account of the initially creative but ultimately devastating relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge. Christopher Clark wears his immense scholarship lightly in Iron Kingdom(Allen Lane, £30), an absorbing history of Europe's troublemaker, Prussia. Thomas Becket and his Biographers(Boydell Press, £45), by Michael Staunton, is a clever exposé of the cult of celebrity, medieval style. And Robert Harris never disappoints: escape your relatives on Christmas afternoon with his smart and entertaining Roman blockbuster, Imperium(Hutchinson, £17.99). • Richard Aldous's The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs Disraeli, was published in October by Hutchinson

Richard English

The two greatest chroniclers of latter-day America, Philip Roth and John Updike, both produced powerful novels this year. Roth's Everymanagain displays his unique capacity for distilling rage and wisdom, while Updike's Terrorist(Hamish Hamilton, £17.99) persuasively and movingly creates the world of a confused jihadist of Egyptian-Irish-American background. Terrorism lies at the centre also of Francis Fukuyama's After the Neocons(Profile Books, £12.99), a gripping essay on post-9/11 US foreign policy, and one which fascinatingly outlines why its author has shifted away from neoconservatism. Closer to home, Keith Jeffery's Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson(OUP, £35) rescues a complex character from the stereotypes which have so often distorted his memory. In particular, Jeffery recreates the world in which Wilson could see himself as Irish, British and English simultaneously. Michael Longley's Collected Poemsbrings together works of addictive, extraordinary, and haunting beauty by one of the greatest of modern poets. • Richard English's Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Irelandwas published by Macmillan in November

Roddy Doyle

The Afterlife(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $21) is Donald Antrim's memoir of his eccentric, monstrous, alcoholic - and dead - mother. It is shocking, hilarious, painful; Louanne, the mammy, is no longer breathing but she's still there, in every word. A bad ma, but a great, great book. Absurdistan(Random House, $24.95), Gary Sheyhngart's second novel, follows the fortunes of Misha Vainberg, obese son of a Russian, and Jewish, and recently assassinated oligarch. He's dying to escape to America but ends up in the war-torn, Sheyhngart-torn republic of Absurdistan. It's a wild, exuberant, funny book. Beyond Sleep(Harvill Secker, £17.99), by Dutch novelist WF Hermans, was written 40 years ago but only published in English this year. An ambitious geology student's field-trip to Norway starts badly and gets worse the further north he strides. The language is dry; the socks are wet; the compass is lost. A masterpiece.  • Roddy Doyle's novel, Paula Spencer, was published by Jonathan Cape in September

Roy Foster

Michael Longley's Collected Poemsdelineate a 40-year achievement whose scale can now be appreciated. Wars recur, ancient and modern - but so do family, houses, botany and, with this most visually acute of writers, paintings. Sharpness and economy are the touchstones. Colm Tóibín's collection, Mothers and Sons, was unforgettable, principally for the novella-length story, A Long Winter, one of the best things that this continually surprising writer has done. Richard English's unconventional Irish Freedom: A History of Irish Nationalism(Macmillan, €30) is accessible, almost chatty, narrative of Irish nationalist politics and culture, accompanied by a brilliant survey of ideas about nationalism, asking where the phenomenon comes from, why it endures and triumphs over other identifications - and what the general history and theory of nationalism can illuminate about the Irish case, and vice-versa. It should be widely read. In cultural history, Marina Warner's Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors and Media(Oxford University Press, £18.99) dazzled: a rich feast of alchemy, spirit photography, seances, and zombies, charting modernity's need for supposedly supernatural phenomena and the strange uses that can be made of them by the creative mind.  • Roy Foster is Carroll professor of Irish history at Hertford College, Oxford

Dennis O'Driscoll

Seamus Heaney's powerful new collection of poems, District and Circle, chills the heart with a melting glacier, breaks it with an elegy for his sister, and lifts it at the sight of an alder tree being planted permanently in the language. The Collected Poems of Michael Longleygathers the work of the young verse virtuoso and the nimble master, movingly braiding the love poet, war poet and nature poet into a 330-page lyrical weave. Bertolt Brecht stands centre-stage in Karen Leeder's fascinating anthology of poems, translated from German, which respond to his life, death and oeuvre: After Brecht(Carcanet, £12.95). Derek Mahon - a poet of wry disaffections and dark epiphanies, like Brecht - includes crisply compelling examples of Brecht's poetry in Adaptations(Gallery, €20/€12.95), a collection of his vigorously worked versions from many languages. Another Irish poet-translator, Bernard O'Donoghue, canters back to the "Christmas past" of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a beguiling Middle Englishpoem restored to evergreen readability in O'Donoghue's lucid and musical translation (Penguin Classics, £8.99). • Dennis O'Driscoll's Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotationswas published in October

Greg Delanty

Galway Kinnell's Strong Is Your Hold(Houghton Mifflin, $25) is as good as any of his books, an important volume from one of the older generation of poets. Michael Longley's Collected Poemsis a must, with the early poems such as Swans Mating and Peaceto the beautiful shortish later work. Then there's Gerry Murphy's End of Part One: New and Selected Poems. His poems are lit with diesel - mind you don't catch fire. It's an injustice to point out that The Book of Job, by Kathyrn Maris (Four Way Books, $14.95), is a first book. Her poems may be what Yeats meant by "cold and passionate as the dawn". There's the shipshape poems of Andrew McNeillie's Slower(Carcanet Press, £9.95). And there's Louise Gluck's Averno (Carcanet, £9.95) and Harvey Shapiro's The Sights Along the Harbor: New and Collected Poems(Wesleyan University Press, $29.95) - both, oh, so good. And be transported by Seamus Heaney's District and Circle. • Greg Delanty's Collected Poems 1986-2006was published by Carcanet Press in February

Colum McCann

Irish fiction finished the year with a tremendous flourish - Patrick McCabe's Winterwood,Roddy Doyle's Paula Spencer(Jonathan Cape, £16.99), Edna O'Brien's Light of Evening, Desmond Hogan's Larks' Eggs(Lilliput, €17.99) and Colm Tóibín's Mothers and Sonswere books I was looking out for. It was also a year of poetry for me. There was Seamus Heaney's District and Circle, of course, Michael Longley's Collected Poems, Tom MacIntyre's ABC(New Island, €12.99) and Paul Muldoon's Horse Latitudes(Faber, £14.99). I was delighted to see Greg Delanty's Collected Poems(Carcanet, £29.50). Delanty has catalogued an entire generation and its relationship to exile. He's the laureate of those of us who have gone. One of my greatest treasures is going to the postbox to find a letter from John F Deane including a series of poems called The Waxing Poems. They are words that call for peace, beautifully considered and printed - some can be seen at Then there was Mary O'Malley, at her very best in A Perfect V(Carcanet, £7.95). But, when all is said and done, I will remember the year for John McGahern's passing.  • Colum McCann's novel, Zoli, was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in September