Mainstream and literary fiction

So many notable novels have come out this year that any list would exclude literally dozens of worthy contenders. That said, any list which didn't include Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20) would be incomplete. Mantel followed her Man Booker-winning Wolf Hall with a sequel which was equally ambitious and well-received. The past year has seen several old names come up with vigorous new work, including Umbrella (Bloomsbury, £18.99) by Will Self, Sweet Tooth (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) by Ian McEwan and Telegraph Avenue (Fourth Estate, £18.99) by Richard Chabon. Best of all was Richard Ford's excellent Canada (Bloomsbury, £18.99), an understated treatment of bank robbery and murder from a teenage boy's perspective. Also, after her vibrant London novel, NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), Zadie Smith's critical stock has sharply risen again. But some of the most cherished novels of 2012 have come from lesser-known names. Katherine Boo spent four years in the slums of Mumbai researching Behind The Beautiful Forevers (Portobello, £14.99), a devastating portrayal of street-dwellers struggling to survive against insurmountable odds. Meanwhile, Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis (Faber, £12.99) showed the same city as a fevered hallucination seen from an opium den. Everything about Laurent Binet's HHhH (Harvill Secker, £16.99), was post-modern and non-linear, an inventive way of recounting the 1942 assassination of Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich. Readers were unfailingly moved by the relationship between a girl and her late uncle's lover in Tell The Wolves I'm Home (Macmillan, £12.99) by Carol Rifka Brunt. Adam Johnson turned out a captivating, irreverent novel about a North Korean spy in The Orphan Master's Son (Doubleday, £18.99), which quickly found an audience, as did, perhaps more surprisingly, Ned Beauman's completely unclassifiable The Teleportation Accident (Sceptre, £16.99). And Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy (Picador, £16.99), a darkly comic novel about moving to the sticks, gave the great tradition of Jewish-American fiction another shot in the arm.

Genre fiction

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This may go down as the year Ian Rankin brought Inspector Rebus out of retirement for Standing In Another Man's Grave (Orion, £18.99), giving his creation a new lease of life by teaming him up with the more strait-laced Malcolm Fox. But 2012 also belonged to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), in which a husband becomes the prime suspect when his wife disappears. A tense mystery, it's also a critique of their storybook marriage. Denise Mina's Gods And Beasts (Orion, £12.99) was, not altogether surprisingly, another highlight of the crime year, keeping the spotlight on the downtrodden officers at the heart of the police procedural. Close on her heels came Caro Ramsay, whose The Blood Of Crows (Penguin, £7.99), forced her detective to go against his better judgement to nail a killer. SJ Watson based his thriller Before I Go To Sleep (Black Swan, £7.99) around a woman who has to re-learn everything about her life every time she wakes up, a good basis for an inventive tale. New books by Terry Pratchett are increasingly precious, and his latest, The Long Earth (Doubleday, £18.99) was written with Stephen Baxter, their two very different approaches complementing each other beautifully in a story about parallel timelines. Tim Powers just went gloriously mad in Hide Me Among The Graves (Corvus, £14.99), pitting John Polidori and Christina Rosetti against vampires in a well-used Victorian London setting. China Mieville weighed in with one of his most engaging books yet, a steampunk deconstruction of Moby-Dick entitled Railsea (Macmillan, £17.99), while Adam Roberts mashed up sci-fi with the country house mystery in Jack Glass (Gollancz, £14.99), to great effect. On the hard SF front, Iain M Banks showed there are still avenues to be explored in his long-running Culture series, with The Hydrogen Sonata (Orbit, £20) plunging deeper down a metaphysical rabbit hole.

Alfresco non-fiction

The person in your life who, in one way or another, is hooked on the great outdoors, could do worse than read Wild (Knopf, £25.95), Cheryl Strayed's story of how, with nothing left to lose, she decided to walk the arduous Pacific Coast Trail. She tells how, with no training or experience, she faced rattlesnakes, bears and extreme weather in the hope of putting her life back together. Such a demanding trip would have been a mere stroll to Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray, £25), whose life has been documented by Artemis Cooper. Fermor was one of the great travel writers of his time, known especially for walking from Holland to Istanbul. Cooper does this iconic figure proud in a well-researched biography. If the recent David Attenborough celebration made you curious about the lives of wildlife cameramen, pick up Alan Root's Ivory, Apes & Peacocks (Chatto & Windus, £20). This pioneering man didn't just want to document single species but entire ecosystems, and in this book he writes about his career, including hanging out with George and Joy Adamson and Dian Fossey. Closer to home, Bruce Sandison describes the lives of the ghillies and gamekeepers who keep Scotland's estates running in Glorious Gentlemen (Black & White, £16.99). Experts in deer, salmon and grouse, they shared with Sandison their intimate knowledge of the land. Robert Macfarlane, author of The Old Ways (Hamish Hamilton, £20), set out from his Cambridgeshire home to follow the ancient tracks that pre-dated modern roads, and found himself in a network that brought him closer to his ancestors – and took him all the way to the Himalayas. In Monty Don's Gardening At Longmeadow (BBC Books, £25), the TV gardener details how he created the Longmeadow garden and gives suggestions for how readers can get their own gardens looking at their best in every season. Growing your own has come a long way since Tom and Barbara Good, and James Wong, in Homegrown Revolution (W&N, £20) shows how we can cultivate more exotic produce, even in this climate.

General non-fiction

As the only British prime minister to have been assassinated, Spencer Perceval should be more famous than he is. Now, after 200 years, Andro Linklater has written Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die (Bloomsbury, £18.99), not only examining a neglected PM but also reconstructing the political mood and the sequence of events that led to his death. Henry VIII is well-trodden historical ground by comparison, but Catherine Fletcher has found a new angle in Our Man In Rome (Bodley Head, £20), focusing on Gregorio Casali, the Italian diplomat charged with persuading the Pope to permit Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Using hordes of obscure documents, Fletcher evokes the glamorous life Casali led while fighting off debtors and the formidable Anne Boleyn. Following up her book about "filth, noise and stench" in the 17th century, Emily Cockayne has turned to a subject we can all identify with in Cheek By Jowl (Bodley Head, £20): neighbours, and how we've managed to live alongside each other over the past 900 years. Craig Collie felt the bombing of Nagasaki (Portobello, £20) deserved as much attention as that of Hiroshima, and has written an absorbing, white-knuckle account of the lead-up, the detonation and the aftermath. Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes is an unforgettable story of a love that even Stalin couldn't crush, concerning two young people who were separated by the Second World War and then the gulags, but remained devoted to each other and exchanged letters whenever they could. Douglas A Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name (Icon, £12.99) is a shocking investigation into how, after the abolition of slavery, a form of it carried on in the Southern United States under the auspices of the police and the justice system. It's informative and hard-hitting, and you can't ask for more than that.

Kids and

young adults

In Johnny Duddle's The Pirates Next Door (Templar, £6.99), a pirate family move to a dull seaside town and the neighbours are scandalised. I refuse to give away the shock ending, but it'll warm the hearts of parent and child alike. It's also easy to adore Nighttime Ninja (Little, Brown, £12.99) by Barbara DaCosta & Ed Young, which uses paper-cut illustrations to tell the story of a little boy's mission to get a late snack. In the latest Olivia book by Ian Falconer, Olivia And The Fairy Princesses (Simon & Schuster, £12.99), the titular pig is determined to stand out from the crowd, but not to be a little princess like all her peers. There are some grown-up terms which need to be explained, but the great piggy illustrations make up for that. A crop of books have come out this year which tackle, imaginatively and empathetically, some of the issues likely to be uppermost in teen minds. In the dystopian future of Scott Westerfield's Uglies (Simon & Schuster, £6.99), Tally can't wait to be 16, for the surgery that will make her look as glamorous as every other adult. But once it transpires that the operation will affect her brain as well as her body, she is faced with a dilemma. Lissa Price's Starters (Doubleday, £9.99) takes place in a post-apocalyptic time when under-20s rent out their bodies to the minds of the old, and one girl starts to believe that she is being used to commit murder. A terrifying premise, speedy pace and some good twists all feature here. Back in the present day, in the moving The Fault In Our Stars (Penguin, £12.99) by John Green, terminally ill Hazel meets Augustus at a support group meeting and the pair set about unravelling the mysteries of their favourite novel. Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler teamed up with illustrator Maria Kalman for Why We Broke Up (Electric Monkey, £8.99), in which the reasons Min ditches her boyfriend are summed up by the items in a box that she gives him. Coming to terms with family issues and adult concerns is one of the main themes of The Statistical Probability of Love At First Sight (Headline, £6.99) by Jennifer E Smith, as Hadley's late arrival for a plane brings her together with Oliver. The two only have a few hours to get to know each other and decide if their attraction is worth pursuing.