Leafing back through books old and new that tell a personal tale of 2011

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As we near the end of the year, we’ve asked a group of well-known book lovers to share with us the book they’ve most enjoyed reading in 2011. Some of the choices were published this year, and others have been revisited or only discovered recently, although published years ago. Happy reading in 2012.

Barbara Taylor Bradford

International best-selling novelist, whose latest work is Letter From a Stranger.

Undoubtedly my favourite book of the year was Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva (HarperCollins, £20). This immensely talented and creative American writer is the best in the spy business as far as I’m concerned.

In this, his 14th book, Gabriel Allon is again the star of the show. Art restorer, assassin and spy, Allon has been hailed as the most compelling creation since “Ian Fleming put down his martini and invented James Bond” according to the Rocky Mountain News. In this new gem,  Allon must find a way to destroy a new and deadly terrorist network from within.

To succeed he must reach into his violent past and use an unusual woman who is a collector of art, and an heiress, but who will not be easy for him to manipulate. Her father was one of his deadliest enemies. But no more about the story –  I don’t want to give this fabulous plot away. Always by Gabriel’s side is his second wife, Chiara, and at the end of a telephone is Ari Shamron, his former boss whose name is synonymous with the history of Israel and its intelligence services. Although semi-retired, Shamron cannot resist poking his nose in.

The two of them make a great team. The story moves between  the worlds of art, intelligence, and the corridors of power in Washington and the auction houses in London,  where great art is traded daily, to the frightening landscape of Saudi desert where death hovers.

This is a book that is hard to put down, and is well worth the read. Daniel Silva’s research is impeccable. We not only get an entertaining story, but a lot of genuine information that is fascinating.  Ten out of ten for this one.

Sonia Benster

Owner of the independent Children’s Bookshop at Lindley, Huddersfield.

My choice is Flip by Martyn Bedford (Walker Books, £7.99), a first-time author from Guiseley. Before you even get to the story, the intriguing cover has you hooked. The inverted vinyl jacket demands to be turned this way and that before being opened and read.

Immediately you are immersed in the story of Alex and Philip, who are trapped in each other’s bodies. Unexceptional, nerdy Alex from a modest London home, wakes up in leafy Ilkley to find he is now Philip – nickname Flip – who is handsome, popular, sporty and a girl-magnet. Though there are aspects of Flip’s life which appeal to Alex, he is desperate to return to his old self. But how to do it?

This clever psychological novel explores identity – who we are, how we are perceived and what we wish to be. The universal conundrum of teenage life. Perfect for 13 – 15 year olds.

Ian Brown

Artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

At the beginning of the year I was lying in Leeds General Infirmary with a broken femur. The prospect of the first three months of the year on crutches lay ahead. Unable to sleep one night I downloaded Vanity Fair onto my phone – a book I’d never read.

From that moment on I was hooked. Thackeray’s “novel without a hero” (Penguin Classics, £8.99) is the most fantastic thing, its tone perfectly pitched, its tongue firmly in its cheek.

The vanity, foolishness and selfishness of human beings are delicately and knowingly exposed for us to see, and for those of us with misanthropic tendencies, the foibles of most of the characters reinforce our belief that human beings could be so much better than we are.

However, in the novel no-one is wholly bad or evil; no-one is wholly good either.

The novel exhorts us to live better and to be less stupid. Thackeray doesn’t preach like Dickens can do.

Instead he paints a huge canvas of action set against the Napoleonic Wars and gently reveals and unmasks a plot of immense action and complexity.

Vanity Fair helped me recuperate and through it I resolved to get fit, live life to the full and with more care to do good and enjoy the delights the world can offer.

Liz Green

Award-winning presenter of Liz Green Live and One on One, from 12pm-3pm each weekday on BBC Radio Leeds. She is also the Yorkshire Society’s Media Personality of the Year.

Stephen King is the ultimate journey-man to dark places and a great story teller. I have always been addicted to his work. Those who dismiss it as schlock-horror and popularist or get sniffy about the horror genre need to think on. His books touch on the underbelly of life and experience and have charted America’s dark side and psyche since Carrie was first published in 1974. His latest best seller, 11/22/63 (Hodder and Stoughton, £19.99), is a combination of “what if..”, time travel and an attempt to change history by preventing the assassination of JFK in 1963.

The book is also a journey and tribute to what has been lost from a more innocent age in America; almost a yearning for how it used to be without sentiment. Naturally, being King, there are things hiding under the bed or in the closet. Dark things. This is a story which makes you believe – for a while – that it may be possible to change history and what that would mean. I love the idea of a passage back in time through a pantry in an old American diner.

Take the trip. Let Stephen King hold your hand. He knows where all the dark places are…

Bonnie Greer

Writer, broadcaster and social commentator, who was appointed president of The Bronte Society this year. Her latest book is Langston Hughes: The Value of Contradiction.

In my time at university over three decades ago, the poet Ted Hughes was considered the Great Satan, the man who had “killed” his first wife, the equally great American poet, Sylvia Plath.

I wouldn’t touch Hughes’s work with a ten-foot pole, until he published, in 1992, an analysis of Shakespeare’s plays which he entitled Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.(Faber and Faber).

I re-read it this year to remind me of how profound Shakespeare really was… and is.

In 562 pages, (it took me five years to read it the first time), Hughes takes apart two early narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Through them he reveals what he calls “The Tragic Equation”, the basis of all great poetry. This is the mechanism through which Shakespeare ascended heights that no writer had ever reached before or since.

This book is also a map of Hughes’s own Muse, a wild, dark and beautiful thing. Needless to say, it scared the hell out of many in the critical establishment. But if you want to take a walk on Shakespeare’s wild side under the guidance of a great poet at full stretch, try this.

Adam Hart-Davis

Writer, broadcaster and photographer whose most recent publication is The Book of Time: All You Need to Know About the Biggest Idea in the Universe.

The book I most enjoyed in 2011 was The Wooden Bowl, by Robin Wood, (Stobart Davies £30). Robin is one of the finest bowl-makers in the country, and writes from the heart about the ways in which wooden bowls have been made over the centuries.

He provides beautifully written descriptions of the various lathes that have been used for turning bowls, and the right kinds of wood. He explains in simple terms and with glorious pictures how it is possible to tell from fragments found by archaeologists what a particular bowl was made from, and what it was used for.

I was so inspired by this book that I turned my own bowl, and now eat my cereal and soup from it every day.

David Lascelles

The Earl of Harewood is a television and film producer

Colin Thubron is one of the greatest living travel writers and his latest book To a Mountain in Tibet, (Chatto and Windus, £16.99) is about one of the world’s great journeys, the pilgrimage route round Mount Kailas in Western Tibet. Kailas is holy to four of Asia’s great religions (Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bonpos) and to walk around it is said to cleanse the sins of a lifetime. Thubron’s book is unusually personal for him. He talks about his inner journey, the recent loss of his mother and the death of his sister in an Alpine avalanche when she was only 21, as well as the hardships of walking at altitude (Drolma La, the highest point of the circuit is 18,500 feet) and the harshness of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. His descriptions of people and place are as vivid as ever – especially vivid for me, because I made exactly the same journey, walking into Tibet from Humla province in northwest Nepal with my three sons in June 2010, almost exactly a year after Thubron.

If you like travel books, or love the Himalayas, or are simply a fan of good writing (I’m all three), this is a book for you.

Clive Lawrence

Consultant in intellectual property, sports law and media and entertainment law with FrontRow Legal, Leeds.

My book of the year was Maggot by Paul Muldoon (Faber and Faber, £14.99). A new collection from the man who has been called the leading poet of his generation, published around his 60th birthday, it could have been one of those contented summations of a career that garner awards and nudge the Nobel Committee. Instead, this book – and it is a book, rather than just a collection of short poems – is far more challenging than that.

Its subjects are the big ones, including love and death, time and loss, memory and language, but they don’t get the respectful treatment. Meaning doesn’t explain itself so much as ignite from all the connections and coincidences – the way ideas come to the mind, or information emerges from the algorithms of a search engine.

The Most Rev and Rt Hon Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York

The book I most enjoyed this year was The Rule of Law by Tom Bingham (Penguin, £9.99). The writer was Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and Senior Law Lord to the United Kingdom: the first judge ever to hold these three offices. Sadly, he died on September 11, 2010, just a few months after this book was published.

In a mere 175 pages, Lord Bingham examines what the idea of the Rule of Law actually means. From equality before the law, to the sovereignty of parliament, he makes clear, with a beautiful use of the English language, that the rule of law is the foundation of a fair and just society as well as the best means yet devised for ensuring peace and co-operation.

He ends this inspiring book by saying: “The rule of law is one of the greatest unifying factors, perhaps the greatest, the nearest we are likely to approach to a universal secular religion. It remains an ideal, but an ideal worth striving for, in the interests of good government and peace, at home and in the world at large.

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no-one will we sell, to no-one deny or delay right or justice.”