Online exclusive recommendations from some of our staff writers and freelance reviewers



The Fever (Picador, £14.99) by Megan Abbott is an amazing novel, set in suburban America, it deals with the spread of a mysterious condition amongst teenage girls at a school. Incredibly astute on the fraught psychology of teenagers and young women in particular, it's dripping with tension and bubbling with burgeoning sexuality. The Free (Faber & Faber, £12.99) by Willy Vlautin is just as good. About a troubled war veteran and the lives of the people around him, it's like a Tom Waits album in novel form, brilliantly evoking the struggles of America's underclass. I was mightily impressed with Anneliese Mackintosh's debut story collection Any Other Mouth (Freight, £8.99), skilful, deft writing and a brutally honest insight into grief, mental illness and much more. And I want to give a shout out for Amy Poehler's Yes Please (Picador, £16.99), the funniest, smartest and frankest memoir I've ever read.




In a particularly political year, it's not surprising so many of the non-fiction titles I enjoyed had a political emphasis. Two of my favourites were Rachel Holmes's biography of the tragic and difficult, yet also stimulating and exciting Eleanor Marx (Bloomsbury, £25), and Lesley Riddoch's positive and eminently possible view of a future independent Scotland in her superb Blossom (Luath Press, £11.99). Alison Light's Common People: The History Of An English Family (Fig Tree, £25) was less overtly political perhaps but barely had a dull page, full of fascinating insights into her ancestors as they moved about the country looking for work. In fiction, I loved Anne Donovan's beautiful use of Sots in her medieval tale, Gone Are The Leaves (Canongate, £12.99), and also Aimee Chalmers's use of it in her inventive and sympathetic fictionalising of the life of Marion Angus in BlackThorn (Lumphanan Press, £9.99).




No book in 2014 made me think more than Nadine Hubbs's Rednecks, Queers And Country Music (University of California Press, £24.95), a vigorously written study of the "queering of the middle class", by which liberal intellectuals have appropriated and obliterated a traditional working-class tolerance for same-sex relationships, in the process foisting on "rednecks" and their country music a reputation for racism, sexism, homophobia, in fact just about any unpleasant or negative social attitude you care to name. This is why supposedly omnivorous students, asked to specify their musical tastes, will regularly say "anything but country", as if all other genres are unquestionably valid and "country" remains a bigoted and tasteless exception. Nice to read an academic book that isn't all pointy-headed and theoretical but whose argument is as tight as a groundhog trap in Tennessee.




It's been an excellent year for short stories, with memorable collections by Margaret Atwood and Rose Tremain. Best by far is Graham Swift's England, And Other Stories (Simon & Schuster, £16.99), a compilation of quiet, elegant tales about his homeland. It reveals again Swift's incomparable skill at capturing intense feeling without seeming to lift a finger.

Michael Penman's formidable biography of Robert The Bruce: King Of The Scots (Yale, £25) wears its learning if not lightly, then most readably. A groundbreaking work of original research, it helps conjure a tangible glimpse of a man whose role and actions are in danger of being obscured by those keen to claim him for their own political ends. The same might be said of Richard Dawkins, but Dan Rhodes is determined not to let atheists win the day. His broadside on the splenetic scientist is splendidly satiric. When The Professor Got Stuck In The Snow (Miyuki Books, £4.11 Kindle edition) romps through cosy middle England, warmed by a wicked sense of humour, though it no doubt sent a chill up Dawkins's spine.




The four novels of Marilynne Robinson are brilliant, insightful, moving and profoundly provocative both spiritually and intellectually. Lila (Virago, £16.99) is the story of an attempt at a new life that carries pain, difficulty and a sort of redemption. In the American canon, Robinson is as important as Roth, Bellow or Ford. That good. Ali Smith is regularly praised for her invention, her risk-taking but How To Be Both (Hamish Hamilton £16.99) may be unconventional in form but is deeply traditional in that it entertains, informs and delights. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the peerless American historian, has informed the world of the foibles and greatness of such as Lincoln, Johnson and the Roosevelts. Her memoir of childhood, Wait Until Next Year (Aurum £12), circles around the Brooklyn Dodgers but has at its core the realities of 1950s America.




My book of the year is An Officer And A Spy by Robert Harris (Arrow, £7.99), a fictionalised reconstruction of the Dreyfus affair that shook French society in the 1890s. Apart from anything else it is a wonderful espionage tale following the travails of the head of the secret service, Georges Picquart, who realises that the Jewish officer had been framed. So relevant to our times, with its account of intelligence services gone mad. As is Dave Eggars's The Circle (Random House, £4.82) a social networking dystopia set in a near future where Google has taken over. Everyone has to be on Twitter and Facebook constantly and lives are transparent. Instead of "property is theft", the doctrine is "privacy is theft". A true vision of hell. It was partly inspired by George Orwell's 1984 which I re-read last year and which is astonishing in its prescience. Anticipated the internet by half a century. Patrick Leigh-Fermor's travel writing is a great antidote to dystopia. A Time Of Gifts (John Murray, £9.99), about his walk across Europe in the 1930s, restores faith in humanity.




In a year of anniversaries, landscape and memory loomed. Caroline Moorehead's Village Of Secrets: Defying The Nazis In Vichy France (Chatto and Windus, £20) is an immaculate exploration of what is and what can be remembered when suffering and heroism alter people, yet seem to leave a lonely place - a plateau of the high Cevennes - beyond all harm. Bettina Stangneth's Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life Of A Mass Murderer (The Bodley Head, £25) is meanwhile an unsparing test of genocide's perpetrators and the very idea of deceit. The book strips away the excuses of willed ignorance, of habit and unconscious complicity. Douglas Dunn once called Stewart Conn one of our "indispensable" poets. That has been true for half a century. Speaking as a teenager he once encouraged, I was enthralled by the marvellous The Touch Of Time: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, £12). The celebrations for Conn are long overdue.




Is the Holocaust a fit subject for fiction? That was the question asked of Martin Amis's The Zone Of Interest (Jonathan Cape, £18.99), which is set in a camp eerily similar to Auschwitz. The only proper response is to read this remarkable, deeply disturbing and quite original novel. My biography of the year was Updike (Harper, £25) by Adam Begley, which elegantly illuminated the writing as much as the man. For sheer enjoyment Hugo Williams's latest collection of poetry, I Knew The Bride (Faber, £12.99), takes some beating. In it, the past is ever present but so, too, is a worrisome future, as Williams treks to and fro hospital for dialysis. The title poem, which is taken from the Nick Lowe song of the same name, is a fond - and funny - remembrance of the poet's sister Polly. The Golden Fleece (Carcanet, £15.29), a collection of fugitive pieces by Muriel Spark, adroitly edited by her companion, Penelope Jardine, is a reminder were one needed of the difference between those who are truly great and those who can only stand in wonder at them.




Thanks in part to serving as an itinerant chair at Scottish Book Festivals, the year's reading material has been nothing if not eclectic! Bonnie Greer's memoir A Parallel Life (Arcadia, £14.99) breaks just about every rule in the autobiographical book with scant attention paid to chronology. None of which detracts from the vividness of anecdote or charm of recollections. Her own - and her family's - journey is a fascinating one. John Lanchester's How To Speak Money (Faber, £17.99) is at once timely, scary and not infrequently hilarious. He enters the dark acronym-laden world of the trading floor, letting us into the unsavoury secrets of the trade. We owe him a debt of great gratitude, not least for the knowledge that someone invented the term 'bankster', a useful amalgam of banker and gangster. It takes a bold journalist to write the history of a political marriage before knowing whether or when it fetches up in the divorce court. But Matthew D'Ancona's account of the days before Cameron and Clegg plighted their troth to the coalition in 2010, In It Together (Penguin, £9.99) and eye-witness accounts of some of the post nuptial punch ups, is juicy fodder for all political anoraks.