Ripping, gripping and slicing yarns

THE NOVELS of 1992 were brilliant, unforgettable, gripping, dazzling, enthralling, even 'morally slicing' - at least, according to the literary pages' nominations for 'books of the year'. Nearly 500 titles were featured, with almost as many superlatives.

Adam Thorpe's Ulverton, for instance, is 'warm, funny and very moving', 'a unique blend of talent, virtuosity, energy' and 'uncanny, accomplished'. All these recommendations are from Hilary Mantel, in the Spectator, the Times Literary Supplement and the Daily Telegraph respectively - but full marks for consistency.

Despite Ms Mantel's solid support, Thorpe is well beaten into second place in our 'poll of polls' by Philip Larkin's Selected Letters, which received 17 nominations. Victoria Glendinning's biography of Trollope and Iris Murdoch's latest philosophical treatise come equal third with nine votes each.

What is most striking about 'books of the year' features is the dominance of literature, biography and history. In the year when scientists claimed to have cracked the origins of the universe, when political leaders gathered for the Earth Summit in Rio, when Britain fell catastrophically out of the ERM, no book on science, the environment or economics got more than a single mention - unless you count Robert Skidelsky's biography of J M Keynes, which received five nominations. But then Keynes, like Ottoline Morrell (eight for Miranda Seymour's biography), was a member of the Bloomsbury set.

Veteran observers like to catch the reviewers nominating their friends. Alice Thomas Ellis neatly got round this by insisting that the only books she read were by friends, while Julie Burchill said that people became her friends because they were good writers.

Jeanette Winterson went further and nominated her own Written on the Body ('this year's most profound and profoundly misunderstood book') . . . which was just as well, since otherwise it would have received no votes at all. Also unplaced was Christopher Hope's 'morally slicing' (A S Byatt) Serenity House.

Few reviewers were so unseasonal as to respond to invitations from the Spectator and the Sunday Times to nominate the worst books of the year, but sometimes the recommendations seemed waspish. 'Much of it was beyond me,' Rupert Christiansen wrote of Iris Murdoch, 'and some of what I did faintly comprehend seemed rambling and repetitive, but there is real wisdom there.'

Patrick Skene Catling 'admired rather than enjoyed' A N Wilson's Jesus, and confided that this and another Wilson volume had sent him into a monastic library to read about transsexual developments.

Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient topped the list of 'worsts' with three nominations, against seven in the 'bests'. (This, we decided, should take him out of our Top 10.)

The prize for the rudest nomination goes to Julian Symons in the Sunday Times. He described Hugh David's biography, Stephen Spender, as 'ill-written, often ignorant, inaccurate and pettily malicious'.

Other prizes:

All-round generosity: Christopher Hawtree (the Spectator) who nominated 18 books including one that he 'eagerly awaited'.

Least helpful nomination: Kate Kellaway, in the Observer, who put forward Elizabeth von Arnim's All the Dogs of my Life before remarking that it was out of print.

Least inviting nomination: Jilly Cooper (Sunday Times) who proposed a novel 'about the backstage loves and intrigues of an Australian operetta company'.

Most superior nomination: Not those who recommend untranslated works in foreign languages (an old trick), but Nicholas Shakespeare (Daily Telegraph), who nominated a novel so unputdownable that he had to finish it on 'a glacier 16,000 feet up in the Andes'.

Most honest nominations: Craig Raine (Times Literary Supplement) who proposed Garrison Keillor's Radio Romance, Nicholson Baker's Vox, and Susan Wicks's Singing Underwater, because 'I enjoyed the sex'.

Least honest nomination: Chris Dunkley (Financial Times) who liked Madonna's Sex because it was 'a striking departure in concept'.