Sebastian Haffner's Defying Hitler (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is an extraordinary book: a young man's experience of life under Nazi rule. The author wrote it in 1939 but abandoned it. He went on to become a distinguished historian but never revised this first-hand account. His son discovered the memoir recently and it's now a huge bestseller in Germany - not surprisingly, for it's a unique examination of how it felt to live through those years. Touching, honest and beautifully written, it goes some way towards explaining how the unimaginable did happen. I was utterly absorbed by Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (Granta). The author, a journalist, decided to find out how the working poor manage to live in America today. She took jobs ranging from scrubbing floors to selling clothes in Wal-Mart - dead-end work on the minimum wage - and her struggle to survive is pitilessly examined. It's a funny, humane and important book, a testimony to those who lie forgotten at the bottom of the corporate heap.
The year's best story collections include Joyce Carol Oates's powerful Faithless (Ecco), Aamer Hussein's acute and beautifully written Turquoise (Saqi) and T C Boyle's storming After the Plague (Bloomsbury). Paul Bailey's enchanting novel Uncle Rudolf (Fourth Estate) is an unmissable pleasure. Fingersmith (Virago) by Sarah Waters provides delicious complexities and Maggie Gee's The White Family (Saqi) says the unsayable about race and class in NW10. Nickel and Dimed (Granta), Barbara Ehrenreich's undercover investigation of poverty among the minimum-waged, brilliantly exposes America's disastrous welfare reform: my book of the year.
The judges of this year's Samuel Johnson Prize got it absolutely right. Margaret MacMillan's Peacemakers (John Murray) is modern history as it should be written: a big subject - the peace conference of 1919 - brilliantly handled with vivid characterisation and clear-sighted analysis of the problems they faced. This is a superb account of the crucible from which so many of our modern problems - Israel, Iraq, the Balkans - derive. John Grigg's death last year sadly leaves his great biography of Lloyd George lacking its final volume. Nevertheless, Lloyd George: War Leader (Allen Lane) makes a fitting climax to a path-breaking study, detailing his epic struggle to limit the slaughter yet come up with victory in the end.
Francis Spufford's The Child that Books Built (Faber) is a short book with deep reverberations - a thoughtful, entertaining and erudite discussion of the effect books had on one reading child. You finish it, think about it, and then immediately re-read it and find yet another elegant dimension. Crow Lake (Chatto) is Mary Lawson's first novel and a remarkable, tense narrative of family tragedy in northern Ontario: a name to watch. Glimpses of the Wonderful (Faber) questions the harsh image of Philip Henry Gosse presented by his son Edmund. Ann Thwaite's handsome biography is rich with details of the work and travels of the early Victorian scientist.
I have been stunned and baffled by Roger Lewis's vast biography of the stunningly baffling Anthony Burgess (Faber): a heavyweight contender in the lately fashionable contest to find the most elusive biographee (Chatwin? Guinness? Van der Post? Patrick O'Brian?)
Thin Air (Review), Sue Gee's marvellously atmospheric and painterly novel, depicts "eccentric" survivors in our ravaged countryside with humour, wisdom and love. Georgina Hammick's haunting novel Green Man Running (Chatto), an urban love story defined by a rural childhood tragedy, explores brilliantly the ambiguities of art and life, grief and laughter. The luminous, intimate yet universal stories, some of which will become classics, in Aamer Hussein's Turquoise (Saqi) encompass passion, identity, exile and fortitude in Lahore, Karachi and London. …