The Guest list: Our literary editor chooses titles that make their mark
The Man Booker Prize announced its longlist last week. But there are plenty of other books to admire...
Sunday 01 August 2010
1. The Spinning Jenny Award for making authors turn in their graves
This was a year clearly bereft of new ideas, but nevertheless saw the publication of some remarkably successful sequels: Young Sherlock Holmes by Andrew Lane; The Wild Things by Dave Eggers; And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer; Winnie the Pooh by David Benedictus... But the Silk Purse Makers' Guild prize goes to Penguin's beautiful production of Nabokov's The Original of Laura – the novel that its dying author wanted burned.
2. The shoo-in for The Bad Sex in Fiction Award
Craig Raine's Heartbreak has "a pair of female nipples" resembling "asymmetric hernias". Rich and Mad by William Nicholson has a sex scene that is controversial largely just for being a sex scene – the novel is for young readers. But Alastair Campbell triumphs: his novel Maya seems written with the prize in mind. "I gripped the expensive fabric of her green dress in my two hands and I tore it," it reads, before becoming far too rude for a family newspaper.
3. Finest example of a lost literary art form
A year bookended by sumptuous travel books and collections of letters is bound to raise questions about the future of such profound and nosy insights. Love Letters of Great Women, edited by Ursula Doyle, would be a lot poorer had its contents read along the lines of: "Gr8 2 C U @ Charleston parT!!! pls send sexy pix." And Jan Morris's Contact: A Book of Glimpses is pithy enough without being tweeted. If these genres are soon to die out, however, their apogee comes in a month's time with Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin. Travel, pathos, style and wit, and not a lol in sight.
4. Most Scottish book of the year
Andy Murray's autobiography was published in paperback in November and, ahem, doesn't need much updating now. But for Scottish charmers with a rather better hit rate, read the crazy real-life memoir California Schemin' by Gavin Bain – the bizarre tale of two boys from Dundee masquerading as California rappers. Alternatively, if you like a tale about how we wuz robbed, the Crimespotting anthology is a collection of Edinburgh crime stories by top Scottish writers. The most Scottish short story collection of the year, however, is The Year of Open Doors, edited by Rodge Glass.
5. The Cramming It In Award for covering all bases
According to Ned Beauman, his frighteningly assured debut novel Boxer, Beetle was going to be two books, featuring a Jewish boxer, eugenics, a rare beetle and a medical condition known as "fish odour syndrome". Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil has the Holocaust, a failed writer and a stuffed monkey and donkey, all living in a shirt. For the sheer brilliance of a vast other world, lose yourself in Helen Dunmore's The Betrayal and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (both contenders to take this year's Man Booker Prize) or the overlooked The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.
6. The must-read autumn memoir
No reader can have failed to notice that the memoir of the century will be published this autumn, telling an explosive story of political intrigue and an unstoppable ego the size of Baghdad. Yes, Nicholas Parsons' My Life in Comedy is published on 2 September, closely behind A Journey by Tony Blair. Also out this autumn are memoirs from Kenny Dalgleish, Stephen Fry, Paul O'Grady, Jo Brand, Russell Brand, Chris Evans, Dannii Minogue, Michael Parkinson, Gok Wan, Simon Pegg, Judi Dench, Derren Brown, Jonathan Agnew, Keith Richards, Dawn French and Susan Boyle, none of whom have any idea where the WMD are either.
7. The All About Me Prize for biography and memoir
Peter Mandelson's memoir The Third Man clearly should have been titled "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" had Toby Young not got there first. Alastair Campbell's diaries, Volume One: Prelude to Power, are a masterclass in swearing to advantage: "JP was mega offside again ... GB was being a pain ... and some of them did absolutely fuck all unless asked. TB said the last few days have been kindergarten politics ..." Perhaps they could both do with a sympathetic biographer, such as Lewis Chester, who shows the sweeter side of Lew Grade in his biography All My Shows Are Great.
8. Best book about a giant squid
The best book narrated by a dog is undoubtedly The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe, narrated by Marilyn's best friend and written by Andrew O'Hagan. For criminal gangs and a famous gigantic missing architeuthidae, you can't beat China Miéville's fabulous Kraken. It's deep – but not in that way.
9. The Country House Holiday Award for a writer trying to relive his youth
In Martin Amis's The Pregnant Widow, a group of friends reflect on a long-ago holiday together and friendships that should have been allowed to drift. In Blake Morrison's The Last Weekend, a group of friends go on holiday together and wish that they had allowed their friendships to drift. Naomi Alderman's The Lessons gets the regret in early, perhaps because she is still only 36.
10. The They Think It's All Over – Thank God It Is Now Cup
While lesser publishers cashed in on the World Cup, there were some intelligent takes on the vuvuzela fest. Steve Bloomfield's Africa United explains "how soccer keeps hope alive across a troubled continent". More Than Just a Game by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close recalls Nelson Mandela's time at Robben Island, playing football with his fellow prisoners.
11. The Radical Ideas Award for books promoting the hypothesis that Richard Dawkins is not God
With no new Dawkins published since last September, agnostic readers are in serious danger of starting to think that God might exist. Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a gripping novel about Jesus, an itinerant preacher, and Christ, his brother and amanuensis; and Cole Moreton's personable Is God Still an Englishman? gently probes the Church of England and its role in Britain.
12. The Katie Price Honorarium for women's history
With nothing but the tabloids and TV shows to keep us up to date, it's a good job that Katie Price is publishing her next set of memoirs, You Only Live Once, in October. Louise Wener's Different for Girls is the funny story of a woman's life in the man's world of Britpop; and Red Dust Road by the poet Jackie Kay describes her search for her birth parents. But if it's sex and slatterns you're after, you need the Byzantine brilliance of Stella Duffy's novel Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore.
13. The Harper Lee Memorial Prize
Though Ms Lee is alive and well, it's unlikely she'll ever follow her 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird. But this year's Orange Prize shortlist proved that its portrayal of racism is not yet a history lesson. Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs is a creepy analysis of post-9/11 America. And Black Water Rising by Attica Locke is a brilliant literary thriller.
Round one: the Man Booker dozen
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
"A world of incredible scope, originality and imaginative brilliance" set in a Dutch trading post in 18th-century Japan, according to this paper's review.
The Betrayal By Helen Dunmore
The follow-up to her magnificent 2001 novel The Siege. "Brave, tender and with a unique gift for immersing the reader in the taste, smell and fear of a story," said our review.
Parrot and Olivier in America By Peter Carey
"Carey is a lyrebird of stunning prowess, a mimic par excellence," according to our review.
The Long Song By Andrea Levy
Set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery, Levy's novel would make for a disquieting read for a holiday in the West Indies.
February By Lisa Moore
The New Yorker says Moore's novel, which watches a bereaved mother grapple with loss, "[evokes] memory and grief in pitch-perfect detail".
In a Strange Room By Damon Galgut
This fictional travelogue through Greece, India and Africa sees Galgut's writing attain new heights.
The Finkler Question By Howard Jacobson
An assured comic novel that explores Jewish male identity in Britain. Our review today in The New Review calls Jacobson's prose "a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes".
The Slap By Christos Tsiolkas
An Australian novel exploring the ramifications of a man slapping someone's child. "A beautifully structured examination of the complexity of modern living," said our review.
Skippy Dies By Paul Murray
Set in a teenage world of boarding schools and computer games, this Irish novel has been described as "Joycean". The protagonist, Skippy, dies in the opening sequence.
Trespass By Rose Tremain
A London antiques dealer moves to rural France in search of salvation. "The work of a writer at the top of her game," said our review.
Room By Emma Donoghue
Published next month, the story of a child's life in a room was inspired by the real-life case of Josef Fritzl.
C By Tom McCarthy
Due to be published on Thursday, C tells the story of Serge Carrefax, a young man born at the dawn of the 20th century.
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