The Guest List: The best and worst literary moments

In a week when the Man Booker judges unveiled their final 13, our books editor Katy Guest comes up with a clutch of awards of her own

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Margaret Atwood award for the bleakest futuristic dystopia

While plaudits are owed to Sam Leith for giving us the weirdest view of the future (in which crack government scientists produce a "coincidence engine" that makes the only credible plot twist one in which nothing weird happens), the novel was far too cheerful for this award. We're in economic meltdown, for heaven's sake; people want to read about a future that is even worse than this one. Congratulations, then, to Player One, by Douglas Coupland, who can always be relied on for surreal futuristic collapse, and Jonathan Trigell, for Genus, in which genetic developments divide humans into two distinct species. Warning, Tories: it's not supposed to be a manifesto.

The contraceptive award for the most offputting book about child-rearing

Motherhood and moving to the Wirral have altered the gritty Scouse novelist Helen Walsh, who has put aside tales of drugs, fights and girl-on-girl rape scenes to write about the more terrifying story of an utterly sleep-deprived new mother. Go to Sleep was published in July, just a month after the word-of-mouth success, Go the F**k to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes, a picture book for parents who still – just – have a sense of humour. Meanwhile, to really put teenagers off unprotected sex, show them Jane Rogers' brilliant, Booker-longlisted The Testament of Jessie Lamb, in which pregnant women die of an incurable virus. Frightening.

The award for best use of work by a dead author

Having been shortlisted five times for the Booker Prize but never won, Beryl Bainbridge was this year awarded the slightly patronising posthumous Best of Beryl Prize. Her almost-finished novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, was released in May, 10 months after she died. David Foster Wallace's unfinished last novel, The Pale King, was hailed by fans almost as if it were the last words of Jesus. This paper's reviewer called it "our final communication from a voice that is as inescapable as it is irreplaceable". However, the prize for avoiding unseemly haste must go to Mervyn Peake's widow, Maeve Gilmore, who used his notebooks (he died in 1968) to write Titus Awakes, the last Titus novel, which was published last month, after her death and on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The tourist information award for most off-putting book about a holiday destination

Two books about foreign destinations were bound not to turn out well: Jan van Mersbergen's Tomorrow Pamplona, which builds to a violent crescendo, with bulls, and Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement, a beautifully written history lesson about Vietnam's communist past. Graham Swift's Iraq-war-based Wish You Were Here, meanwhile, wins the prize for the book that least makes you feel what it says on the dust jacket. It's a tie, however, for this prize, between the world's worst cruise holiday, in A L Kennedy's The Blue Book, and the sad, beautiful Perfect Lives, by Polly Samson. The latter should come with a guidance sticker: not everyone in Brighton is secretly dying inside.

The award for best animal title

While Philip Hensher's brilliant King of the Badgers showed a "coruscating intelligence" in its examination of "the varieties of modern Englishness", according to this paper's reviewer, some found it disappointingly short on badgers. However, Téa Obreht's Balkans-set The Tiger's Wife deserved its Orange Prize win for actually featuring a real escaped tiger. Sara Gruen's Ape House examined human relationships through the prism of six, sign-language-communicating bonobo apes, and Rebecca Hunt's Mr Chartwell was an intelligent and original novel, inspired by Winston Churchill's "black dog". But the reissue of My Dog Tulip, a memoir and love story by the magnificently weird J R Ackerley, was the most deserving of this prize.

The too much information award for having lots of dirty bits

With the Kisses of His Mouth, by Monique Roffey, promised to be a "provocative and explicitly candid" sex memoir, but our reviewer found the relentless descriptions of sex rather monotonous, and admired the book instead for being "both wise and moving when examining her desire for romance". Steer clear, though, of anyone whose copy of Alan Bennett's Smut: Two Unseemly Stories falls open at the mucky bits. As a Bennettian look at family life, grief and ageing, the two stories are exemplary – but not exactly saucy. Caitlin Moran's account of becoming a woman in her brilliant How To Be a Woman are Just Enough Information to explain why sexism is rubbish, women are brilliant and Katie Price is "Vichy France with tits". This is the feminist manifesto of the year, and should be required reading for all teenage girls.

Best spy

While Richard Aldrich's GCHQ and Keith Jeffery's MI6 are, of course, important, immaculately researched, in many ways fascinating historical documents, I'm afraid that we just don't want to know that the Cold War was basically won by code-breaking geeks and crossword addicts. Instead, Jeffery Deaver's new Bond novel, Carte Blanche, had Bentleys, gadgets, car chases, cocktails and a beautiful woman called Ophelia Maidenstone. We'd still like 007 to save us from the baddies, please.

The consolation award for those cruelly overlooked for the Booker

While we must congratulate the Booker judges for noticing the wonderful, nearly-wasn't-published gem The Testament of Jessie Lamb from Jane Rogers and the small Scottish publisher Sandstone Press, their overlooking Edward St Aubyn's At Last and Philip Hensher's King of the Badgers is, to some, inexplicable. However, for sheer, against-all-odds optimism, this prize goes to Steve Hely for How I Became a Famous Novelist, a book whose title wants so badly not to be just fiction.

The Gideon's award for the best book about Jesus that isn't the Bible

That books about Jesus seem to sell extremely well is a fact that is not lost on authors and publishers – just look at the Bible and Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. This Easter saw several authors piling in. According to our reviewers, Melvyn Bragg's history of the King James Bible, The Book of Books, was moving; A C Grayling's The Good Book was "clumsy, almost unreadable"; Kevin Nelson's scientific The God Impulse analysed why humans believe in gods; James Frey's The Final Testament of the Holy Bible was deemed "just not as powerful, enigmatic or interesting" as the original; while John Niven's The Second Coming, about a modern, potty-mouthed Jesus, was "a wince-making but entertaining novel".

The Dan Brown award for historical adventure fiction

While Armistead Maupin's Mary Ann in Autumn is not, strictly speaking, historical, it is the latest thing in nostalgia fiction, and it will make you feel like a relic if you remember the original Tales of the City novels. Whereas a year or so ago, no publisher could resist the lure of cloned historical novels with titles straight out of a Dan Brown generator, this year no novel is worth anything unless it has a real-life queen in it. Philippa Gregory's The Red Queen and Alison Weir's The Captive Queen are two of the originals, and best. However, the award for the most historical fiction goes to Jean M Auel's stunning The Land of Painted Caves, the conclusion to her squillion-selling Earth's Children series, which is set 30,000 years ago.

This year's award for 'the new Stieg Larsson'

Publishers know when they're on to a good thing, so Scandinavian crime fiction has been a huge market this year as everyone tries to replicate the phenomenal success of the late Stieg Larsson. The Norwegian Jo Nesbo finds comparisons to Larsson "corny", he told the IoS this year, and doubtless so, too, do Hakan Nesser, Lars Kepler, Camilla Lackberg, Camilla Ceder and Karin Fossum, all of whom have been called the "new" or the "next" Larsson. Larsson's partner, Eva Gabrielsson, is hoping in a way to become the new Larsson, if she manages to win the right to continue what she claims was a writing collaboration. But you have to feel sorry for Asa Larsson, whose latest Rebecka Martinsson novel is published on Thursday, and who labours under the label "the other Larsson".

The Kindle in the pool award for the title most cynically designed to appeal to paper book Luddites

While every week brings news of the imminent end of the "codex" book, lovers of paper and ink are a niche but lucrative market, and authors are appealing to it by stressing the bookishness of their books. Ivo Stourton's The Book Lover's Tale is about a failed novelist and interior designer who provides entire libraries of fake books (horrors!), while Demetri Martin's This is a Book has beautiful illustrations on its lovely, papery pages and Clare Morgan's A Book for All and None is about Virginia Woolf and Friedrich Nietzsche, neither of whom, I suspect, had a Kindle. The title of This is Not the End of the Book, by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, makes its intent very clear. But A L Kennedy's beautiful object, The Blue Book, wins the prize for being not only a book but blue all over.

The elephant never forgets award for the memoir with the most remembering in it

The obvious winner of this prize would be the surprisingly detailed and absorbing Life, by Keith Richards, in which music's most infamous high-liver disproves the adage that if you remember Keith Richards' life, you can't have been there. But that would be too easy. Andrew Morton rather misses the point of the award with William and Catherine: Their Lives, Their Wedding, a book published at such record-breaking speed that the junior royals were still nursing their hangovers when it hit the shelves. However, the Nelly the Elephant prize for the best memory goes to Alastair Campbell for his Diaries Volumes Two and Three, both published this year and containing a level of detail that probably brought tears to the eyes of some former colleagues.

Eyes on the prize: Who's who on the Man Booker longlist

The Sense of an Ending

By Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape – Random House, £12.99): Three times shortlisted for the prize, Barnes is Ladbrokes' joint third favourite to win. The book will be published on Thursday and reviewed in the IoS' next Sunday.

On Canaan's Side

By Sebastian Barry (Faber, £16.99): Interviewed in the IoS today, Barry has been shortlisted twice. His latest novel is "imbued with sorrow, joy, tenderness and also moments of humour," says our writer.

Jamrach's Menagerie

By Carol Birch (Canongate Books, £12.99): Reviewed in The Independent by fellow longlister D J Taylor, this 19th-century seafaring narrative was praised as "good as anything Peter Carey has done in this line and, in certain exalted moments, even better".

The Sisters Brothers

By Patrick deWitt (Granta, £12.99): DeWitt's second novel, set in the 1850s California gold-rush, was called "genre-bending" by some, and an "unsettling, compelling and deeply strange picaresque novel" by this paper's reviewer.

Half-Blood Blues

By Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail – Profile, £10.99): A second novel, which begins with a young, black trumpet player being arrested in Berlin in 1939. It received a mixed review in The Guardian from Bernardine Evaristo.

A Cupboard Full of Coats

By Yvette Edwards (Oneworld, £12.99): In an article for this paper, Edwards wrote that her novel was probably the first to star British-Montserratian characters living in the East End of London.

The Stranger's Child

By Alan Hollinghurst (Picador – Pan Macmillan, £20): Having won the Booker for The Line of Beauty (2004) and been shortlisted for The Folding Star in 1994, Hollinghurst is most bookies' favourite. This paper hailed it as "a complex comedy of class, politics, art and, above all, sexuality".

Pigeon English

By Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury, £12.99): Kelman's debut novel, written in teen slang, Ghanaian patois, scripted dialogue and a child's stream of consciousness, was the subject of a 12-publisher, six-figure bidding war.

The Last Hundred Days

By Patrick McGuinness (Seren Books, £8.99): Charting the last days of Nicolae Ceausescu's 1980s Romania, The Last Hundred Days is from a small publisher and is one of four debut novelists on the list (McGuinness, Stephen Kelman, A D Miller and Yvette Edwards).


By A D Miller (Atlantic, £7.99): The snowdrops of the title are not flowers, but corpses that remain buried under the Moscow snow all winter. Our reviewer called debut novelist Miller "a skilled depicter of place, character and mood".

Far to Go

By Alison Pick (Headline Review, £12.99): Set in the former Czechoslovakia before the Second World War, this second novel by the Canadian writer was called "resolutely compassionate and unflinchingly honest".

The Testament of Jessie Lamb

By Jane Rogers (Sandstone Press, £7.99): The bookies' longshot at 16/1, this outsider by the author of Mr Wroe's Virgins and The Voyage Home is one to watch. Set in a dystopian future, with a mystery virus killing pregnant women, it comes with high praise from this paper's reviewer.

Derby Day

By D J Taylor (Chatto & Windus – Random House, £17.99): The ninth novel by our prolific and brilliant columnist, this Victorian drama is Ladbrokes' favourite to win the prize. Described by our critic as "escapism of the highest standard", it has the IoS's approval and our best wishes.