The Guest list: Best books of 2010
The Independent on Sunday Literary Editor Katy Guest is proud to present her personal awards. Happy reading...
Sunday 26 December 2010
There was a sad start to 2010 for book lovers. We were told that this would be the year that would see the end of the so-called paper book. And so it was to be, apparently. In the second quarter of 2010, Amazon announced that sales of e-books had out outnumbered sales of hardback books for the first time. Finally, the end of the world as we know it.
Presciently, the start of Year Zero coincided with two insightful and entertaining books about inventions and trends in human development. What Works, by The Independent on Sunday's Hamish McRae (HarperPress, £12.99), was lauded as "a can do anthology [for] defeatist times", while Professor Robert Winston's Bad Ideas (Bantam Press, £20) was "the fascinating story behind our inventions – and whether they're a blessing or a curse". It will be interesting to see how the e-reader (stores thousands of books; can't be read in the bath) will be regarded by the Winstons and McRaes of 2110.
If publishers know anything, it is that following a successful trend or formula can only be good for sales (until it's not). The Freakonomics superbrand went stratospheric, with Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner's follow-up to the follow-up, Illustrated Superfreakonomics (Allen Lane, £20). Similarly, Macmillan rode the wave of 2009's impressive sequels-by-other-authors trend (The Wild Things, And Another Thing and Return to the Hundred Acre Wood by Dave Eggers, Eoin Colfer and David Benedictus) with Andrew Lane's Young Sherlock Holmes, in June (£6.99). Some trends we can live without (any more vampire teen fiction is going straight on my waste paper pile), but these titles got away with it by being paradoxically original and very good – written respectively by two experts and one fan.
Still, we must reward fresh thinking, so plaudits should go to Peirene Press (which was founded in 2008 but came into its own this year with titles including Véronique Olmi's Beside the Sea, £8.99, and Friedrich Christian Delius's Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, £8.99). Their remit, to publish contemporary European literature in English translation, and only books of fewer than 200 pages, is a simple one, but refreshing.
Last year's 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin inspired many imaginative and intelligent responses. Happily, the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society in 2010 kept up the momentum, and the magnificent Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society (HarperPress, £25) made for an educational January. But the Anniversary of the Year Award is a hotly contested one. Which is more surprising: that it is 25 years since Brett Easton Ellis's first book, Less Than Zero, and that he is still writing challenging fiction such as July's Imperial Bedrooms (Picador, £16.99); or that it is 50 years since Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and that she is still alive and well in her home town in Alabama but has not published another novel since?
Nonetheless, the Jumping the Gun Award for the most premature anniversary publication must go to Titanic, by WB Bartlett (Amberley, £20) – described by this paper's reviewer as "quite the best and most level-headed telling of the whole story I have ever read". We'll let it off for being two years early, then.
In February I fought through the snowdrifts in Buxton, Derbyshire to interview Dan Rhodes about his brilliant book Little Hands Clapping (Canongate, £10). He'd been snowed in for about a month and was keen to get out for a couple of pints of Pedigree and a gossip about Ken Dodd, TJ's disco in Swansea, and the ingredients of pub peanuts (they're full of MSG, apparently). The temperature in Buxton as I write this is minus five, but Rhodes recently told me that he has started writing a new book, so I sort of hope that he is snowed in for a while. (Sorry.)
After the thaw came the general election, which seems a long time ago now, but spawned some writing that should not be forgotten. Some of it for good reason, such as Chris Mullin's frank and illuminating Decline & Fall: Diaries 2005-2010 (Pro
file, £20); some offering slightly more dubious pleasures, such as Peter Mandelson's The Third Man (HarperPress, £25); and some that should only serve as a warning. Tony Blair competed with his former colleague Alastair Campbell for the Most Toe-Curling Sex Scene Award. Campbell's scene in his novel Maya (Hutchinson, £18.99), in which a character fears that "the walls were going to fall down as we stroked and screamed our way through hours of pleasure", was pitched against some avant-garde phone sex in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (Fourth Estate, £20) in the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award, but Blair's, being a factual memoir was not eligible.
No sooner had Labour lost the election than the England football team endeavoured to lose the World Cup, though the tournament was not without interest – namely in the books it inspired. Steve Bloomfield's Africa United (Canongate, £12.99) told "how soccer keeps hope alive across a troubled continent", and Trautmann's Journey, by Catrine Clay (Yellow Jersey, £16.99) told the remarkable story of Bert Trautmann, Hitler Youth turned Manchester City goalkeeper, who played the last 17 minutes of the FA Cup Final with a broken neck.
Having mentioned Freedom – a contender for the Most Hotly Awaited Follow-Up Award, with Helen Dunmore's magnificent The Betrayal (Penguin, £7.99), DBC Pierre's Lights Out in Wonderland (Faber, £12.99) and Armistead Maupin's Mary Ann in Autumn (Doubleday, £17.99), the first Tales of the City novel for 21 years – it would be wrong not to mention that the novel is also shortlisted for the prestigious Most Divisive Read Award. Some critics were breathless with excitement about Franzen's follow-up to 2001's The Corrections; others found it impossible to like – and we tried. Similarly, Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil (Canongate, £15.99) was difficult to love, though it does win the coveted award for the Best Nazi Allegory About A Monkey and a Donkey Who Live in a Shirt. But the winner is David Mitchell for his brilliant, masterful, bewildering The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Sceptre, £18.99). Some critics hated it; they were wrong.
Finally, it was nice to end the year with the British Library's fascinating "Evolving English" exhibition (until 3 April) – an engaging history of the English language and an exploration of its future. It shows that the Bible is full of swearing; that William Shakespeare would have spoken like Eddie Grundy; and that there is nothing new about text speak. And it makes the future of the book look promising. So, too, does Amazon's small print, which quietly reveals that, while hardback books might have been outsold by e-books, the paperback is still a huge seller. Oh well. Maybe 2011 will be the year in which we see the end of the book.
The Geek Award for the most interesting book with a boring title
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Green Books, £12.95), by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, is about just what it says: a sick woman who is mesmerised by a snail in a tank beside her bed. It's a short book, packed with insight. But the award goes to Just My Type, by Simon Garfield (Profile, £14.99). It's a book about fonts, and it's fab. Honestly.
Reality TV withdrawal present
While reality TV spin-offs do not generally show a great deal of effort, the Strictly Come Dancing novels, by Amanda Roberts, turn out to be about as much fun as you can have without sequins on. Check out Shimmer (Harper, £6.99), or read All My Shows Are Great: The Life of Lew Grade, by Lewis Chester (Aurum Press, £20) to remember where it all started.
In Trick of the Dark (Little, Brown, £18.99), Val McDermid wrote her first novel starring lesbians. The poet Craig Raine wrote his first novel, Heartbreak (Atlantic, £12.99), and Howard Jacobson celebrated his first Booker win with The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury, £18.99).
Publishing Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin (£25) in September, Jonathan Cape asked whether this would be the last serious collection of letters by a writer. Are the Chatwins of the future saving their emails? Or will we have to rely on WriterLeaks for the thoughts of 2020's famous authors?
The Religi-Curious Book of the Year
Two books about the King James Bible in the run-up to its 400th birthday, by Gordon Campbell and David Crystal, were both admirably scholarly and fascinating. Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate, £10.99) – a novel about Jesus and his rogueish brother, Christ – is probably not the best thing to buy your religious great aunt, but Cole Moreton's Is God Still An Englishman? (Little, Brown, £9.99) is a sensible and timely analysis of spirituality in Britain.
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