After a rich year for fiction, the novel most likely to be placed under the Christmas tree will surely be Julian Barnes's Booker winner, The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape, £12.99). A meditation on memory and regret slyly conveyed through the unreliable voice of a complacent man whose past gives him a nasty surprise, it's slim enough to gobble at a sitting and slips down with deceptive ease, but leaves plenty to ponder in its wake. The hardback is also a thing of beauty in its own right.

Also small but perfectly wrought, At Last by Edward St Aubyn (Picador, £16.99) is the fifth and final volume in his series about abuse, addiction and other bad behaviours among the English upper classes. It's savagely funny stuff, and a fitting conclusion to a saga that's been one of the literary highlights of our time. Alan Hollinghurst teased out the literary establishment's path through the 20th century in The Stranger's Child (Picador, £20), elegantly unpicking myths and customs of Englishness as he traces the secret life and afterglow of a country house and a Georgian poem.

For more rambunctious fare, turn to Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate, £7.99), the most irrepressible read of the year. A young boy is plucked from the streets of 19th-century Wapping and launched on the high seas, joining a quest to capture and bring back a komodo dragon. His story is full of wonder, peril and discovery. Animals also cavort through the picaresque Orange winner, The Tiger's Wife (Phoenix, £7.99) by Téa Obreht. Through a mixture of folklore and autobiography, she paints a vivid portrait of Yugoslavia's history and the Balkan wars.

This year saw several fine novels that opened on to parallel dimensions, including the much-anticipated 1Q84 (Harvill Secker, £20 & £14.99) by Haruki Murakami (which in two volumes means double the wrapping). There are cults, conspiracies and lost lovers aplenty in this vast labyrinth of a novel, in which the parallel universe is lit by a second moon. Beautifully strange, too, is John Burnside's A Summer of Drowning (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), now on the Costa shortlist. An impressionistic study of a withdrawn young woman living on a small island in the Arctic Circle, it brings an eerie glow to the colours and sounds, flora and foodstuffs of the far north. With Mr Fox (Picador, £12.99), meanwhile, Helen Oyeyemi tumbled together fairy stories, feminism and screwball comedy in a phantasmagoria that's both witty and weird.

In A Visit from the Goon Squad (Corsair, £7.99), American author Jennifer Egan takes on time and compromise, old music and new technology, in a mosaic of styles and voices. It follows a gang of friends and enemies linked by the music business from the late 1970s to the near future, and is required reading for anyone worried about a visit from that goon, the relentless passing of time. There's more wry humour of a dark, dry kind in Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), the tale of an affair and its repercussions related over one snowbound winter day at the end of the Irish boom years, while Ali Smith is in playful mood with There but for the (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99), about a dinner guest who rebels.

Sherlock Holmes fans have been well served by Anthony Horowitz's new adventure, The House of Silk (Orion, £18.99), in which an elderly Watson sets down an early case too shocking to be published in his lifetime. More modern thrills were provided by Robert Harris's The Fear Index (Hutchinson, £18.99), a financial what-if melding artificial intelligence with hedge funds, and Neal Stephenson's Reamde (Atlantic, £18.99), a globetrotting jeu d'esprit rejoicing in espionage, virtual reality and plenty of guns. Terror on a domestic scale, meanwhile, was ingeniously evoked by SJ Watson in Before I Go to Sleep (Doubleday, £12.99), about an amnesiac struggling to work out – and then to remember – what has happened to turn her world upside down.

Two masters of the fantasy behemoth were on fighting form this year: George RR Martin with A Dance With Dragons (Harper Voyager, £25), the latest in his Ice and Fire series, and Stephen King with 11.23.63 (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99), a time-travel epic about 60s America and an attempt to avert the death of JFK. China Miéville turned to science fiction in Embassytown (Macmillan, £17.99), a remarkable investigation into the difficulties of communication and the possibilities of language set on a far-off planet where humans and aliens coexist; while The Night Circus (Harvill Secker, £12.99) by debut author Erin Morgenstern conjured a delicate fin-de-siècle world of enchantment in a tale of magicians and circuses that will appeal to fans of Jonathan Strange.

Three short story collections stand out this year: Roddy Doyle's tales of deceptively "ordinary" middle-aged men in Bullfighting (Jonathan Cape, £12.99); Don DeLillo's The Angel Esmeralda (Picador, £16.99), nine pieces spanning 30 years; and Sarah Hall's fierce and sensuous The Beautiful Indifference (Faber, £12.99). Each will surprise, move and provoke. But if you want something more left-field, snap up Diego Marani's New Finnish Grammar (Dedalus, £9.99). The story of a mysteriously wounded man sent to Helsinki amid the chaos of the second world war to try to rebuild his memory and identity, it's a strange, tender portrait of Finnish legends and language-learning, loneliness and human connection.

• Which novels would you give this year?


Justine Jordan

The GuardianTramp

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