Edward St Aubyn

St Aubyn’s bitter satire is his fifth novel devoted to the unfortunate Patrick Melrose, and a follow-up to the Man Booker-shortlisted Mother’s Milk. Its theme is the psychology of inherited wealth and its setting is the London funeral of Patrick’s mother Eleanor, whose share of a 200-year-old candle-wax fortune has been spent on a series of doubtful good causes. Patrick muses on his spells in the Priory, his abusive father, the loss of his childhood home – given to a New Age cult – and the catalogue of ‘idleness, drunkenness, treachery and divorce’ which characterises his trustafarian family. At Last starts as an unremarkable comedy of manners but develops into something much more substantial, combining memorably awful characters with some very good jokes.


Patrick Gale

The complexity of an extended family, with its competing blood ties and emotional demands, is the subject of Patrick Gale’s impressive novel.  Its heroine is Dido, a precocious, orphaned nine-year-old whose aunt Eliza is such a hopeless guardian that Dido has been forced to charge of their chaotic household. Eliza’s estranged husband Giles, a successful opera singer, loves both of them, but has set up house with a younger girlfriend who is more tolerant of his selfishness.  When circumstances draw all four from their usual London orbit down to Cornwall, and Eliza meets a lonely farmer who could change her life, each is forced to decide what he or she really wants, and a dark secret hanging over Dido is finally revealed.  Gale handles the mystery cleverly, but it is his understanding of relationships and the messiness of real life that makes this such a convincing and engaging read.


Annie Proulx

Anne Proulx’s inspired collection of Wyoming short stories centres on the one-horse, three-bar town of Elk Tooth, where ‘everyone tries to be a character and with some success’. In The Hellhole, a game warden stumbles on a diabolical way of disposing of miscreants; in Man Crawling Out of Trees, a New York couple find their marriage cracking in the face of nature’s brutality. Some of the tales are funny, some poignant, some spooky – but all are immensely readable, and rich with the texture of the untamed West. If you’re still wondering who voted for George Bush, this ode to redneck life provides plenty of clues.


Eva Tucker

Eva Tucker’s masterful saga follows the fortunes of a German Jewish family over the course of a century, starting in 1891.  Intelligent and independent – particularly the women – they flourish in the early years; but tragedy is never far away, and the rise of Nazism leaves them struggling to adapt to a grotesque new world. Despite its epic scope, this is a remarkably compact book, in which politics, period detail and a wide cast of characters are deftly interknit. Tucker is particularly good on the family’s relationship with the Gentiles around them, while her treatment of the Holocaust combines pathos with awful suspense.


Colm Tóibín

Eilis Lacey, a bright young girl with a head for figures, leaves the small-town Ireland of the 1950s to take a job in a New York department store. Lonely and apparently doomed to have her future dictated by others, she blossoms when she meets an Italian boy who wants to marry her; but then a death in the family calls her home across the Atlantic. Will she be drawn back into the world she once knew, or will she find the courage to pursue her new life? Tóibín’s novel is a master class in keeping your powder dry: though the bulk of it is made up of humdrum events, the finale – as Eilis’s dilemma takes inescapable shape – is utterly absorbing.


Wesley Stace

Growing up in a theatrical household dominated by ambitious women, George Fisher begins to learn his trade as a magician while still at prep school. But it is a revolutionary approach to ventriloquism, pioneered by his war-hero grandfather, that really fascinates him – and as he explores it, he discovers that his family’s history contains as many mysteries and illusions as any stage show. Switching between the Seventies and the Thirties, and partly narrated by a ventriloquist’s dummy, this is an enjoyable and ingenious novel, full of affection for a vanished world, but never blind to its characters’ luvvie-ish flaws.


Irvine Welsh

When the author of Trainspotting addresses our age’s greatest taboo, an easy read is clearly not on the agenda. Welsh’s paedophilia thriller extends his territory from sodden Scotland to balmy Florida, but the sunshine serves only to accentuate the evil hidden in the shadows.
     Ray Lennox, an Edinburgh detective on stress leave after investigating the abduction, rape and murder of a child, flies to Miami for a holiday with his fiancée Trudi. But the case continues to haunt him, and his attempts to find oblivion in drugs and alcohol lead him to the city’s sleazier neighbourhoods. Stumbling on an abused ten-year-old called Tiana, he finds himself forced to go on the run to save her from a highly organised gang of perverts.
     As a chronicler of fallible coppers, Welsh comfortably holds his own with Ian Rankin. But it is Lennox’s relationships with Trudi and the sexually precocious Tiana that elevate this book to another plane. Can he be trusted to do the right thing by the woman who loves him and the child he has promised to protect, or will he be dragged down by the horrors he has witnessed? Crime manages to be at once compelling, stomach-turning and unexpectedly moving.


Alan Judd    

Edith Ashburnham is a German who married a British officer in the aftermath of the war; sixty years later, she receives a visit from a man she last saw fleeing the ruins of Berlin. Both are survivors of Hitler’s bunker, where he was a young guard and she was one of Eva Braun’s assistants – but while she prefers to put the past behind her, he is determined to rake through every last detail. Why? Judd’s flawless, absorbing novel works both as a thriller, a thought-provoking essay on guilt and remembrance, and a fascinating portrait of life in the Führer’s court.


Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley’s superb novel does for estate agency what The West Wing does for politics – makes it, against the odds, enthralling and even sexy.  Joe Stratford is a regular, popular guy earning a decent living by selling houses in an average American town; his only problem is his deepening love for a married woman. But this is the greedy Eighties, and when a smooth-talking newcomer persuades Joe and his associates that the time is ripe for making easy money, they find themselves drawn into a development scheme which soon begins to look horribly overambitious. The story is an unnerving distortion of the American Dream, but it includes some wonderfully funny characters – among them an exuberant gay couple hooked on home improvement, and the world’s most pernickety house-buyer. Wise, touching, and finely written, Good Faith is a book that has everything.

Penelope Lively

No one is more committed to the ideal of ‘a real old-fashioned family’ than Alison, who has raised six children – with little help from her author husband – in a rambling suburban mansion. Five have made their way successfully in the world – but why do they seldom come home, and why do none of them have children of their own? Add the question of Paul, the eldest, who can’t hold down a job, and the undefined role of the middle-aged ‘au pair’ Ingrid, and Alison’s vision begins to look dangerously blinkered. Lively’s study of the ‘indissoluble’ nature of family life is highly enjoyable and beautifully orchestrated, skilfully shifting between the different members of the household to bring past mysteries into relief.

Joseph Wambaugh

Wambaugh’s vivid portrait of life in the Los Angeles Police Department cross-cuts between a dozen of its men and women as they struggle to keep order in Tinseltown, hampered by a plethora of politically correct regulations. Among them are the star-struck Hollywood Nate, the surf-obsessed Flotsam, and the veteran, all-knowing Oracle; their adversaries are a gang of East European jewel thieves, out of their depth and compromised by a pair of shambolic crystal-meth addicts. Written by an ex-LAPD officer and oozing authenticity, Hollywood Station sometimes reads less like a novel than an anthology of cop stories – but it’s still enthralling stuff.


Sarah Dunant

Set in sixteenth-century Italy, Dunant’s novel opens in horrific style with the sack of Rome by Charles de Bourbon’s troops.  Among those who escape by their wits are a high-class courtesan, Fiammetta Bianchini, and the story’s narrator, her cynical dwarf Bucino.  As the pair struggle to re-establish their fortunes in Venice – with the help of Titian among others –  the tale takes a gentler turn, becoming an unlikely love story.  The plot is just beguiling enough to keep you turning the pages, but the book’s real strength lies in its vivid depiction of everyday life in an exotic, hedonistic Renaissance city.


Margaret Forster

Although their combined names make up her own, Isamay’s grandmothers are as different as chalk and cheese, exerting diametrically opposed influences. Granny Isa is the refined and aloof widow of a Lieutenant-Colonel; Granny May is proudly working-class, down-to-earth and passionate. So fascinated is Isamay by her relationship to them that she is writing an MA thesis on the grandmother’s role in society – yet the more she finds out about other people’s families, the more questions emerge within her own, calling into doubt everything she believes about her genetic inheritance. Forster’s moving and thought-provoking novel is a master class in pacing and construction, as we follow her recklessly curious heroine towards the heart of a shocking mystery.


Douglas Kennedy

Like white-water rafting on a turbulent river, Kennedy’s novel is so packed with twists and turns that it almost defies description. Suicide, murder, accidental death, fraud and espionage – these are some of the rocks against which Jane Howard is hurled as she tries to fashion a life for herself after rejection by her parents. An outstanding Harvard literature graduate, she discovers an unexpected gift for hedge-fund management and detective work; but her personal relationships are less well-judged, and when a sudden tragedy overwhelms her, she flees to Canada in an attempt to cut herself off completely from the past. Though Leaving the World feels at times like four different novels in one, Kennedy’s ability to captivate and move never falters.


Toni Morrison

In the fly-blown American seaside town of Silk, two old women are bound together by mutual dependency and loathing.  Both are haunted by the memory of Bill Cosey, a charismatic hotelier and pillar of the black community, who epitomised the resort’s vanished glamour but left a poisoned legacy to his female relatives.  When a streetwise teenage girl arrives to work for one of them, decades of resentment come to a head, with fatal consequences. Toni Morrison tells her story with great skill, gradually peeling back the layers of history to explore complex relationships, and subtly evoking a fragile, faded gentility.


Ray Connolly

On the run from a newspaper reporter who has rumbled her affair with a married TV presenter, chick-lit novelist Amy Miller takes refuge in a small West Country hotel. Here she finds herself surrounded by an odd assortment of love’s stragglers: an ex-priest and ex-nun enduring a miserable honeymoon; a concussed musician separated from his unfaithful girlfriend; a virginal waiter pining for the brash new trainee. As the hotel’s Valentine’s Day party looms, can any of them find happiness? Connolly’s novel is funny, charming and compassionate, successfully transposing the conventions of a Shakespearian comedy to the twenty-first-century North Devon Riviera.


Christopher Hope

Katherine Healey is a South African adventurer who has done it all: hunted big game, criss-crossed the continent in her aeroplane, befriended Ernest Hemingway, helped ANC activists on the run.  When she dies, her globetrotting son is left to deliver a series of eccentric bequests to her friends and lovers – and discovers in the process a Rainbow Nation as tortured as its predecessor.  Hope’s attempt at the Great African Novel is sometimes too didactic, and strains to include every possible aspect of the country; but it is still an enormously impressive book which combines profound observations with marvellous, whimsical humour.

Anne Tyler

Made redundant from his teaching job, 60-year-old Liam Pennywell downsizes to a small Baltimore flat and looks forward to an ascetic, solitary retirement. But when he wakes up in hospital after an assault he can’t remember, he is forced to engage with the womenfolk he has kept at arm’s length – his sister, three daughters and ex-wife. To their amazement, he becomes smitten by a dowdy PA twenty years his junior; but unexpected complications emerge, and Liam has to decide whether he will seize his chance of happiness or remain on the sidelines of his own life. Tyler blends comedy and tragedy as individually as ever, exploring the ambivalence of memory and the scarring of the human heart with wonderful poignancy.


Kate Atkinson

In an Edinburgh crowded with festival-goers, Martin Canning – a retiring writer of old-fashioned murder mysteries – intervenes in a road-rage incident and saves a man’s life.  But the attacker escapes, and Martin and half a dozen other witnesses – including private detective Jackson Brodie, hero of Atkinson’s Case Studies – find themselves dragged into a bewildering vortex of crime, encompassing everything from money-laundering to murder.  The novel ingeniously daisy-chains together the disparate lives of its characters, and though the plot relies a little too heavily on people failing to do the sensible thing, this is a thoroughly entertaining read, brimming with wry humour.


Susie Boyt

Tragically widowed at 26, Marjorie has found her vocation in middle age as a marriage-guidance counsellor. But for all her expertise there is one relationship she cannot sort out – her own with her teenage daughter, whose decision to leave home for a flat five streets away seems like a heart-rending betrayal. As she slips towards a breakdown, Marjorie’s grip on reality is further loosened by her uncanny resemblance to a TV soap star, for whom people constantly mistake her. Boyt’s ending leaves some issues unresolved, but this is a perceptive, original and moving novel, laced with some wonderful wry humour.


David Nobbs

When 60-year-old Henry Pratt, owner of a modest Soho restaurant, is invited to appear on a television quiz show, he finds himself unexpectedly riding the dumb waiter to fame and fortune.  Soon his role as ‘the People’s Chef’ starts to go to his head, threatening his happy marriage, while jealousy drives an unknown enemy to play a series of vicious pranks on him. Will pride be his undoing, or will he rediscover his true self? Nobbs’s hilarious satire on celebrity culture is fuelled by an apparently inexhaustible supply of jokes, while its sense of human frailty creates moments of true pathos.


Anita Shreve

Trainee paramedic Peter Webster is a straight as they come – honest, sober and hard-working. But when he pulls the beautiful Sophie from a car crash on a Vermont road, it leads to a love affair complicated by her traumatic past and dependence on alcohol. An unplanned pregnancy turns out more happily than anyone could have hoped, until Sophie’s old problems return to wreck their marriage and Webster is left to bring up their child alone. Fifteen years later, he worries that his daughter is about to follow in her mother’s footsteps: can anything be done to save her?  Shreve’s moving story cuts skilfully between the professional and personal dramas in Webster’s life, and gives the same thrilling quality to both.


Wiliam Boyd

Ruth Gilmartin, a graduate student in Seventies Oxford, is astonished when her mother hands her a memoir revealing that she is not the conventional Englishwoman she pretends to be, but a half-Russian émigrée who spied for British Intelligence during the War. Flashing back to 1939, we follow the young Eva Delectorskya’s recruitment and training as an expert on disinformation, helping to persuade America to enter the conflict. But a double agent within her department sends her fleeing for her life – until half a century later she decides, with her daughter’s help, to confront her betrayer once and for all. Boyd’s novel is beautifully paced, moving skilfully between past and present, as the paranoia of Eva’s world begins to infect Ruth’s; he’s also extremely good on period detail, deploying it with an exemplary lightness of touch. The result is a first-class thriller that succeeds in being both thoughtful and utterly absorbing.


Alice Munro

Alice Munro is the matriarch of short-story writers, and in her mid-seventies her fire shows little sign of dimming. The tales in this memorable collection dwell on the fragility of human life, and how it can be turned upside down by a chance meeting or a sudden, violent intrusion. Passion tells of an encounter between a young woman and a doctor which ends in suicide; Tricks,of a love affair thwarted by a cruel case of mistaken identity. The trio of stories following one woman’s life do not entirely hang together, but Munro’s narrative poise and eye for a metaphor never falter.


Peter Vansittart

Erich is one of the twentieth century’s dispossessed. Anglo-German but raised in Estonia, he loses his home and family in the War; after surviving a nightmarish refugee camp, he joins the Estonian government-in-exile as a diplomat, and embarks on a rootless life in London and beyond. Only with the collapse of Communism is he able to return to his father’s mansion, where unwelcome revelations await him. Written in dense, impressionistic prose, Vansittart’s political epic is often bewildering as it scrolls furiously through 50 years; but some of the episodes, such as its account of the Cuban missile crisis, are hauntingly brilliant.


Nicholas Shakespeare

In Eighties Tasmania, two wounded souls meet and marry. Alex, an English-raised farmer, is traumatised by his parents’ death in a car crash; the beautiful Meriddy mourns her vanished brother. Sixteen years later, though disappointed in their hopes of a child, they are finally coming to terms with life when a mysterious youth rescued from the sea reawakens all their dreams and longings. By turns quietly humorous and deeply touching, Shakespeare’s rich and subtle novel splendidly captures Tasmania’s wild beauty and provincial loneliness. It is also particularly good on the desperate yearning for children – and the awfulness of having them.


John Updike

No writer creates an imaginary world more convincingly than John Updike, as this journey through one woman’s life demonstrates.  Hope is a seventysomething painter who has seen the whole story of postwar American art unfold, through her own career and those of her three husbands: the brilliant, unstable Zack McCoy (partly based on Jackson Pollock), the smooth, Warhol-esque Guy Holloway, and the passionate collector Jerome Chafetz.  During a day-long interview with a young New York journalist, this grooviest of grannies tells of experiments with sex and drugs, encounters with Salvador Dali and Peggy Guggenheim, and her struggle for recognition as an artist in her own right. The book brims with ideas and incident, yet for all Hope’s colourful stories, Updike mysteriously fails to conjure up any sense of drama.  It’s like watching paint dry on a very, very beautiful canvas.


Barbara Trapido

In the late 1970s Josh, a theatre-mad academic, marries the beautiful and endlessly competent Caroline. But their lives are blighted by her malevolent, parasitic mother, and fifteen years later the couple are still living on a converted bus in Oxford, struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, in South Africa, Josh’s first love Hattie is raising a family with a hearty Boer who doesn’t understand her artistic ambitions – and when she and Josh meet again at an international conference, secrets from the past emerge which will transform the lives of both families. Trapido’s riveting adult fairy tale weaves skilfully between past and present, exploring the extremes of selfishness and generosity, and the power of parents to thwart their children’s dreams.


Kate Atkinson

In 1975, as the Yorkshire Ripper starts his killings, a child is found in a Leeds flat beside the body of a prostitute who has been dead for three weeks. Thirty-five years later, with another serial killer apparently on the loose, the case comes back to haunt everyone concerned – among them retired policewoman Tracy Waterhouse, who breaks every rule in the book when she intervenes to save another endangered infant. As he tries to fit the pieces together, Atkinson’s long-suffering private eye Jackson Brodie becomes painfully aware of his own shortcomings as a parent, and makes some dangerous enemies. Intricately plotted, mixing humour with pathos, and bubbling with ideas, this is a thriller with the momentum of a runaway train.


Douglas Kennedy

As a young woman in the Vietnam era, living in a one-horse American town, Hannah Buchan agrees to put up a radical student who is passing through.  After a brief fling, he reveals that he is wanted on terrorist charges, and forces her to help him escape to Canada. Thirty years later, with grown-up children and a respectable career as a teacher, Hannah finds the past coming back to haunt her, when her daughter’s disappearance brings the family under intense media scrutiny.  Switching between wry humour and mesmerising suspense, Kennedy’s novel is perceptive, highly enjoyable, and hard to put down.


Anita Brookner

Healthy, handsome and comfortably off, retired bank official Paul Sturgis has much to be thankful for.  But at 73, with no family, he feels imprisoned by his smart South Kensington flat, bereft of his career, and crippled by his failure to find true love; above all, he worries about how he will cope with the approach of death on his own. Then two women come into his life who offer very different possibilities for the future: an ex-lover now stricken by old age, and a much younger, formidably independent divorcee. Can either of them offer the security and affection he craves?  Brookner’s absorbing novel is suffused with her characteristic elegance and wistfulness, and confronts our ultimate fears with remarkable courage.


Peter Ackroyd

Spilling over from Ackroyd’s acclaimed biography of London comes this intricate novel of the mediaeval city. The year is 1399, and as Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke tussle for the throne, civil unrest is whipped up by a young nun with visions of the future and a heretical sect expecting the apocalypse. But who is manipulating whom, and how far does the conspiracy reach? Ackroyd’s basic idea – taking the cast of The Canterbury Tales and making each in turn the focus of his story – is clever, but really adds nothing to the book. His trump card is his brilliant evocation of fourteenth-century life, and though his heaping up of period detail sometimes hinders his excellent plot, it’s hard to complain when the results are so vivid.


ose Tremain

The dozen short stories in this varied and masterful collection range from provincial France in the 1870s to a modern American trailer park.  Most of the central characters are thwarted or bereaved, and to begin with the tone is deeply gloomy, as we visit Wallis Simpson in her senility and follow an incestuous East German border guard fleeing towards Russia.  But with an ingenious re-telling of the nativity story, silver linings begin to appear, to original and moving effect – above all in ‘Peerless’, where a retired accountant comes to terms with a childhood tragedy by supplying ice to captive penguins.


Doris Lessing

The four novellas in this excellent collection range in time and space from the Second World War to the future, and from London to India. In The Grandmothers, two women’s intense friendship leads to love affairs with each other’s sons; The Reason for It is set in a decadent imagined kingdom with alarming echoes of Blair’s Britain. Most haunting of all is Victoria and the Staveneys, in which a rich white family gives a poor black girl a tantalising glimpse of better things. Whether describing sun-kissed colonial life or the miseries of a troop ship, this is Lessing at her most seductive.


Paul Torday

Torday’s follow-up to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a heart-wrenching tale of alcoholism and a lonely man’s search for identity. At 37, Wilberforce has lost his wife, his health, and the fortune that he made from computer software: all that remains is his passion for fine wine. How did everything fall apart? Torday tells the story backwards, from Wilberforce’s lowest ebb to the first meeting with an aristocratic group of friends which will set him on the road to ruin. Part Brideshead Revisited, part Betrayal, it seems initially too doom-laden to succeed, but gradually becomes a mesmerising, atmospheric page-turner.


Alan Judd

Sent into exile at the end of the First World War, the 80-year-old Kaiser is still living comfortably in his Dutch manor when Hitler’s armies invade Holland at the start of the Second.  As he and his wife Hermine dream of restoration to the throne, a young SS officer named Martin Krebbs arrives to take charge of them and establish their views on the Nazi régime.  Like the Kaiser, Krebbs is smitten by a beautiful maidservant – only to discover that she is Jewish; meanwhile, someone in the household is secretly sending messages to the British.  Judd’s Kaiser is an intriguing character – by turns deeply perceptive and frighteningly misguided – and Krebbs’s conflict of loyalties is brought uncomfortably to life.  More a country-house mystery than a full-blown war story, the novel is nevertheless strong on the way soldiers think, and builds to a gripping finale.

Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver’s latest politically charged novel follows the life of Harrison Shepherd, a half-American half-Mexican writer, from his childhood on a remote hacienda to his emergence as a bestselling author in 1940s North Carolina. The highlight of his early life is working as a kitchen boy for a left-wing painter: an ordinary enough occupation, except that his employer’s wife is the fiery Frida Kahlo, and their ménage is soon joined by a prominent Russian exile – Leon Trotsky. Years later, as McCarthyism grips the US, this accidental connection comes to threaten everything that Shepherd has achieved. Kingsolver’s descriptions of pre-war Mexico are lushly evocative, but it is Shepherd’s delightfully prim relationship with his loyal hillbilly secretary that makes this slow-burning, passionate book so memorable.


Richard Mason

Eloise McAllister is a successful fund manager whose 80-year-old mother Joan is beginning to lose her grip on reality. A retirement home in Wandsworth beckons, but even to Eloise the fees are alarming, and she finds herself gambling recklessly on the metals market to secure her parent’s future. Joan’s interest, though, is in exploring the past – partly through official archives, and partly through an illusory world populated by long-dead figures, who lead her to some disturbing discoveries about her family. Encompassing everything from the Boer War and Victorian pornography to modern physics, Mason’s novel is touching, funny and highly original.


Colm Tóibín

Part novel, part biography, Tóibín’s account of Henry James’s life begins in 1895 with the failure of his first play. As he frets over his place in posterity, the great American author looks back at his closest relationships, and the friends he has blindly sacrificed to his art. In the process he gathers inspiration for some of his finest stories, and finally puts down roots at Lamb House in Rye. It’s an audacious project, but Tóibín succeeds magnificently, above all in his subtle handling of James’s repressed sexuality, and his evocation of the Italian cities that the novelist loved.


Joyce Carol Oates

Oates’s American Gothic stories are for the most part short, sharp and shocking.  In Suicide Watch, a father visits his son on a psychiatric ward; in Feral, a boy undergoes a frightening personality change after an accident; in Bad Habits, the children of a serial killer try to come to terms with his crimes. The odd one out is The Man Who Fought Roland LaStarza, a measured, evocative tale of boxing in the Fifties. Though some of the content would turn Damien Hirst’s stomach, this is Oates on magnificent form, spinning her compelling yarns from a dazzling array of viewpoints.


Gordon Burn

To write an enthralling novel with virtually no plot is a rare achievement.  Comedian Ray Cruddas, once a television star and friend of Mrs Thatcher, has fallen on hard times and returned home to the North East to run a nightclub; we follow him as he takes his morning jog, has a cup of tea, spends an evening at work, and goes to a football match.  That’s pretty much it; but along the way, we are drawn back into Ray’s early life – and that of his sidekick, the ex-boxer Jackie – and it is here that Burn comes into his own.  His ability to evoke time and place is outstanding, and the picture he draws of postwar London with its spivs, immigrants and showgirls is so vivid that you can almost smell it.  Primarily, though, this is a testament to the lost world of northern mining communities, and to two men’s enduring friendship.


Steve Martin

Daniel Pecan Cambridge is an unemployed computer genius whose life in Santa Monica is ruled by bizarre fixations, from a fear of kerbs to the need for exactly 1,125 watts of light in his apartment. Although he longs for romance, his difficulty in crossing the road makes dating a strictly theoretical occupation.  His one hope is the attractive psychotherapist who visits him – and when she and her son seek refuge from her violent ex-husband, he finds himself confronting his hang-ups and attempting a normal life.  As you would expect from one of America’s best comedians, the plot centres on an inspired joke – having this extraordinary misfit selected as a finalist in a Most Average American contest. In the end, though, it is not the abundance of gags that makes this a memorable book, but its perceptive and touching reflections on the universal need for love.


Anthony Quinn

The bombing of Liverpool during World War II is a twofold tragedy for Tom Baines, an architectural historian who uses his specialist knowledge to help rescue bomb victims from collapsed buildings. Between air raids, he tries to piece together the mysterious life of a forgotten Victorian architect – and embarks on a love affair which leads him into a different kind of danger. Quinn’s first novel graphically evokes life in the ravaged city, and deftly interweaves the past with the present.


Alan Furst

For Colonel Jean-François Mercier – war hero, military attaché and spymaster – the genteel gatherings of Warsaw’s diplomatic circuit mask a cut-throat struggle for strategic information in which nobody can be trusted. The year is 1937, and as another war begins to loom Mercier’s network produces the first clues to Hitler’s plans for the invasion of France. But his superiors are hard to convince, and to complete the picture Mercier himself must make a dangerous run into the heart of Germany. Carefully researched and finely written, Furst’s brisk, downbeat, sexy thriller brilliantly evokes both the era and a city steeped in intrigue.


Paul Theroux

Sex in youth and age is the theme of this decadent, engrossing collection of stories.  Three of them focus on 60-year-olds who become obsessed with manipulative younger lovers; the other three explore the curiosity and confusion of adolescence.  In the title story – the most substantial and intriguing – a successful artist returns to the Sicilian hotel where, 40 years earlier, he conducted a shameless affair with an older woman, and finds himself tempted in turn by a teenage gold-digger; in Scouting for Boys, four schoolfriends practising survival skills in the woods conspire to take violent revenge on a man who has molested one of them.  Whether evoking the bored sophistication of European aristocrats, or the compulsive smuttiness of American teenagers, Theroux writes with an economy and grace which is hard to resist.


Anne Michaels

Taking as its theme the relationship between humans and the landscape they inhabit, The Winter Vault begins in mid-Sixties Egypt, where British engineer Avery Escher is overseeing the removal of Abu Simbel’s giant figures before the opening of the Aswan Dam. Avery and his wife Jean have already witnessed the flooding of the Canadian countryside to make way for the St Lawrence Seaway, and as they watch the grief of displacement re-enacted in the desert, a tragedy in their own lives drives them apart. Returning to Canada, Jean is consoled by Lucjan, a Polish artist who roams the streets at night painting guerrilla artworks; but he too carries memories of a lost homeland, as a survivor of the Nazis’ razing of Warsaw.  Although the suffering evoked goes to the heart, there is plenty to set against it: in particular, the tenderness of the characters’ relationships, the beauty of the poetic prose, and a wisdom which seems at times to encompass the whole of human experience.


Douglas Kennedy

Fleeing a scandal which has destroyed his teaching career, American Harry Ricks seeks refuge in Paris. But the city he finds is one of exploited immigrants and criminals, and his downward spiral continues as he takes a deadbeat job and becomes a murder suspect. The only person who can help is a glamorous Hungarian woman who accepts him as her lover – and even she is not all she seems. The first half of the book is disappointing by Kennedy’s standards, but the second is an extraordinary Gothic tour de force which will have you turning the pages like a reader possessed.


Anita Desai

This elegant ghost story tells of an American academic led by fate to a run-down Mexican town where his grandfather worked as a gold miner. Interwoven with his tale are those of Doña Vera, an imperious anthropologist with doubtful origins in wartime Europe, and his Cornish grandmother, caught up in Zapata’s uprising a century before. As the locals celebrate the Day of the Dead, figures from past and present intermingle to help him fulfil his quest. Desai combines a deft structure, vivid evocation of landscape, and gallery of masterfully drawn characters to create a delightful and moving novel.


Deborah Moggach

Deborah Moggach has come up with an idea so brilliant that it should be a business proposal. Ravi Kapoor, a London doctor, finds the perfect way to rid himself of his maddening English father-in-law – by starting a retirement home for Brits in Bangalore. Offering an inexpensive colonial lifestyle in a warm climate, Dunroamin is a middle-class dream, and soon 20 pensioners have been found to occupy it. Inevitably, some fall out, but others begin to discover a new sense of life’s possibilities. This is a delightful and entertaining book, combining comedy with pathos, and offering some wise reflections on our attitude to the elderly.


Joseph Boyden

In the remote Canadian town of Moosonee, a Cree Indian family pays the price for crossing a gang of drug dealers. While Will Bird lies in a coma after a murderous assault, dreaming of his days as a trapper and bush pilot, his tough, beautiful niece Annie tells of her search for her sister Suzanne – a successful model who has vanished without explanation – among the party people of Montreal and New York. Alternating between life at its most elemental and most decadent, Boyden’s tale skilfully reflects the Indians’ struggle to embrace modern society without forgetting their ancient traditions. The scenes set in the city are less inspired, but those in the wilderness offer a riveting glimpse of a primordial existence.