Review of 2012: Books

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Tubes by Andrew Blum

No book this year told us more about how modern life really works than Blum's global tour “behind the scenes at the internet”. From cable-layers to data farms, from Docklands to Oregon, this unique travelogue exposed the physical infrastructure behind our digital world.

Pure by Timothy Mo

British fiction's prodigal son, Mo still writes with terrific verve and panache. With trademark chutzpah, he made a Bangkok ladyboy-turned-Islamist militant the irresistible heroine of this spectacular romp through questions of flesh and faith in Thailand and Indonesia.

Country Girl by Edna O'Brien

From the grande dame of Irish letters came a classic autobiography. Not just a scintillating record of a life rich in scandal and stardust, her memoirs tracked a changing Ireland, conjured an amazing cast of A-list friends, and let readers share the joys – and burdens – of a literary vocation.

Dominion by CJ Sansom

Popular blockbusters don't get smarter or richer than this. Sansom, doyen of the Tudor mystery, here re-booted the “alternative history” genre with a superb dystopia-cum-thriller set in the defeated Britain of 1952: Nazism victorious abroad, and smogbound semi-fascism at home.

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The first volume of the Norwegian writer's grandly titled novel sequence, “My Struggle”, proved a revelation. Using the everyday material of family tension and dysfunction, Knausgaard out-Franzens Franzen in a virtuoso chronicle of youth – ruthless, hilarious, unbearably well-observed.

Discovery of the year: Spitalfields Life by The Gentle Author

The anonymous Author began blogging about his – or her – East End neighbours in 2009. Now a beautifully designed book, these portraits of Londoners old and new build into the Olympic year's finest book about the capital: wry, respectful, fabulously diverse and utterly charming.

Turkey of the year: Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger

Talk about the Terminator. Pompous, musclebound, grindingly dull, the super-heavyweight memoirs of the hunk-turned-governor forgot that the Arnie we love is a camp self-parodist. Instead, the official version plods on from Austria to LA with skin-crawling smugness.