Books of the Year ; So - Has It Been a Vintage Year for Fiction? Which Were the Key Biographies? Who Shone in Poetry? and Who Are the Hot Historians? Our Critics and Favourite Authors Decide
The most exciting novel I read was Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey (Picador pounds 16.99), probably the only novel this year (ever?) to explain the wave function and then apply its principles to a work of fiction. It was the only book I read twice, and the only one to inspire me to draw a diagram. Maybe I had mangled my mind, however, by previously reading the whole of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Sceptre pounds 16.99) in Torquay Coach Park (don't ask). This must be one of very few novels in which the structure alone makes you feel like an intrepid mountaineer. There's only one thing at the top of the mountain - but it is, well, a pretty big thing. Jonathan Coe's sequel to The Rotters' Club, The Closed Circle (Viking pounds 17.99) was certainly the most compulsive novel I read this year. To get the full effect, you'll need to re-read The Rotters' Club and then arrange for someone to make you hot chocolate for a few days (you could always feign a cold) while you lie in bed gasping with delight (you can pretend you're coughing). Coe's cleverest moment? Creating an ambitious, unscrupulous, right wing New Labour MP, and then having him oppose the Second Gulf War. Makes you wonder what kinds of idiots actually did support it.
I loved Giles Milton's White Gold (Hodder pounds 18.99), the romping tale of 18th-century sailors enslaved by Barbary seafarers and sold to a Moroccan tyrant. It has all the usual Miltonian ingredients: swift narrative and swashbuckling high-drama laid on a bed of historical grit. Vanilla (Michael Joseph pounds 16.99) by Tim Ecott, was a slower read, but these "travels in search of the luscious substance" were immensely satisfying, and the pages had something of the perfumed essence of the mysterious orchid itself. My favourite of 2004: The Last of the Gentlemen Adventurers by Edward Beauclerk Maurice (Fourth Estate pounds 16.99). The author tells how in the 1930s as a shy 16-year-old he signed himself up to be a fur trader in the Arctic and found himself dependent on the Eskimos. They taught him to hunt and make igloos to survive the Arctic winter, and three years later he was able to repay them by saving a starving community.
Carol Ann Duffy
Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Cape pounds 20) is the best biography I have read since Richard Ellmann's James Joyce (and better than his Oscar Wilde). Greenblatt shows how the art of the biographer - if the biographer has talent - is truly art: a passionate combining of love, language, empathy and imagination. I slept cuddling it. In a year of terrific new voices in poetry - Matthew Hollis and Carola Luther to name two - E Powys Mathers' Black Marigolds and Coloured Stars (Anvil pounds 7.95) is a welcome re-printing of one of the greatest long love poems ever written. I first read Mathers' erotic, heartbreaking version from Sanskrit as a teenager, and it has stayed with me all my life.
The Closed Circle, Jonathan Coe's state-of-the-nation novel, was the best work of fiction I read in 2004: prescient, moving, snortingly funny, and wrapped in a cover textured like a paper napkin. (Even those who don't like Coe's fiction must concede that it always feels wonderful.) Inside its rather boring jacket, John Coldstream's Dirk Bogarde: The Authorised Biography (Weidenfeld pounds 20) proved to be the year's most engrossing biography - a clear-sighted portrait of an actor whose own autobiographical writings were rarely so honest with their readers. Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible (Heinemann, pounds 14.99) effected a similar exposure. Jim Steinmeyer's history of the golden age of stage magic was a dazzling read, and has given me a few ideas about how to keep the family entertained at Christmas. If I can get my hands on a slatted conveyor belt and a co- operative donkey, nobody in our house will be stuck for something to do. …