A week in books

In early December, a newsprint blizzard swamps us with advice on which books to buy for Christmas. Canny punters know that this sage counsel adds up to no more than log-rolling - either for bookshop chains, or to boost the egos of those hothouse flowers who fill books-of-the-year slots. Yet sceptical consumers at this time crave an antidote to hype. This column tries to fill that gap, and sweetens the unseasonal vinegar with some ideas for better buys.

It would (for example) be a crying shame if anyone who wants a guide to pop opted for the nerdy lists in Q's Encyclopedia of Rock Stars (Dorling Kindersley) rather than the wit and nous of The Rough Guide to Rock (Penguin). But sometimes hype-evasion has more to do with value than merit. There's nothing wrong with Longitude (Fourth Estate), Dava Sobel's tale of horological skullduggery, except that it's a longish article decked out in hard covers. The cornucopia of breakthroughs in John Carey's Faber Book of Science could see readers right through into 1997.

Sometimes, though, a gulf in quality hints at a deeper cultural chasm. Sir Roy Strong's overpriced Story of Britain (Hutchinson) delivered insular heritage history while Norman Davies's Europe: a history (Oxford) brought a continent to pulsating life - for a tenner less.

The familiar name also proved the unwise choice in crime fiction. Colin Dexter's Death Is Now My Neighbour (Macmillan) revealed its author's limits; retire Morse and hire any deft whodunnit by Reginald Hill (HarperCollins). You can also forget plodding John Grisham (The Runaway Jury, Century) while Scott Turow has his latest thinking-person's blockbuster on the shelves (The Laws of our Fathers, Viking).

Even readers daft enough to buy books by actors need a helpful hint or two: for instance, about Alec Guinness's My Name Escapes Me (Hamish Hamilton) - so slight, you're amazed it doesn't float away like thistledown. However, even thesps can manage gravitas at times: see Claire Bloom's riveting memoir, Leaving a Doll's House (Virago).

Bloom transforms her emotional knots into readable prose. No such concern bothers Adam Phillips, the decade's smartest shrink, in Monogamy (Faber). Whatever these coy riddles teach, it isn't Emotional Intelligence (Bloomsbury): Daniel Goleman's humane account of why nice guys finish first.

I meant to close this Xmas blacklist with a dig at Melvyn Bragg's Dark Ages doorstop, Credo (Hodder). After all, people who hanker for a long dull chronicle set in the remote past can always read Tony Blair's Desert Island Book: Scott's Ivanhoe. Then I sat opposite someone who was not only immersed in Bragg's 7th-century quagmire, but 95 per cent of the way through. Soppy Yuletide thoughts returned. Better, surely, to cherish an imperfect book than none at all.

Boyd Tonkin

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