Books fight to be best green title of the year

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The Independent Culture

The green version of the Booker Prize is back. They may not be names like Rushdie or Coetzee, but some of the authors on the shortlist for the BP Natural World Book Prize may sell more copies than their purely literary counterparts.

The green version of the Booker Prize is back. They may not be names like Rushdie or Coetzee, but some of the authors on the shortlist for the BP Natural World Book Prize may sell more copies than their purely literary counterparts.

Last year's winner, Sir David Attenborough's magisterial coffee-table tome The Life of Birds, a spin-off from his hugely successful TV series, has already sold more than 200,000 at £18.99 a time. OK, he is a star. But even the tiny, jewel-like Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland by unknowns Steve Brooks and Richard Lewington, which some observers thought should have won, got a sales boost from being on the shortlist.

The prize, sponsored by the oil company BP Amoco and The Wildlife Trusts, is in its fourth year, and offers £5,000 compared with the Booker's £20,000.

Entries tend to fall into two categories, which might be termed "green thoughts" and "smashing pictures". In the first category on this year's shortlist are three books. Earth Odyssey, by the American Mark Hertsgaard, is a familiar exercise in "witness journalism" about environmental degradation, saved from tedium by its vividness.

In Gerald Durrell, the Authorised Biography Douglas Botting makes clear that despite his charm the naturalist could be hell to live with. The most ambitious is Professor Steve Jones' updating of Darwin, Almost Like a Whale. The author gets away with it byerudition and engaging lightness of touch.

On the "smashing pictures"side, the BBC's Living Britain, by Peter Crawford, is another TV wildlife series spin-off. It is an attractive adornment to the coffee-table, but unoriginal. Far more arresting is Nicholas Hammond's Modern Wildlife Painting.

Falling between the two categories is Britain's Rare Flowers by Peter Marren. This is not only a very lovely book to look at and hold, it brings the individual wild flower species alive through the detailed accounts of their struggle for survival.

It is my favourite, but the people who count are the judges. They will announce the winner in London a week today.

THE CANDIDATES

Earth Odyssey by Mark Hertsgaard (Abacus, £9.99)

Vivid account of a six-year journey through 19 countries looking at how devastated environments are affecting the people who have to live in them. Includes a gripping picture of the cost of China's leap into the market economy. Mark Hertsgaard, a freelance journalist, teaches at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Almost Like A Whale by Steve Jones (Doubleday, £20)

Charles Darwin has ousted both Marx and Freud as the most influential thinker of the past two centuries; this is an attempt to update The Origin of Species, using the vast array of knowledge available since Darwin. Steve Jones, genetic pundit and populariser supreme, is Professor of Genetics at University College, London.

Gerald Durrell, The Authorised Biography by Douglas Botting (HarperCollins, £24.99

Large-scale life of the Falstaffian naturalist who helped introduce wildlife to TV, put Corfu on the map with My Family And Other Animals and did the same for Jersey with his endangered species zoo. Douglas Botting has written biographies of two other naturalists, Alexander von Humboldt and Gavin Maxwell.

Britain's Rare Flowers by Peter Marren (Poyser, £24.95

Botany, which has long lagged behind birdwatching in popular appeal, is at last coming in from the wilderness and this glamorous compendium of folklore and photographs of our endangered flora, much of it particularly beautiful, will encourage the process further. Peter Marren is a prolific natural history writer and columnist.

Living Britain by Peter Crawford (BBC Books, £25)

Living Britain is the book of the television series of the same name, a lavishly illustrated millennial celebration of Britain's landscapes and wildlife in monthly diary form, from the Scottish Highlands in winter to the heart of London in high summer. Peter Crawford is a senior producer at the BBC's Natural History Unit in Bristol.

Modern Wildlife Painting by Nicholas Hammond (Pica Press, £35)

This resplendent book examines all its modern aspects, from photographic hyper-realism to abstract, in oils, watercolours, engravings and prints. Look out for Bruce Pearson's stunning underwater painting of a great crested grebe. Nicholas Hammond is a consultant on wildlife art and former editor of the RSPB's magazine, Birds.

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