The best books for Christmas: Our pick of 2010

In 2010, books mattered as much as ever, for grizzled rock stars, ex-prime ministers, novelists, poets and historians alike. Boyd Tonkin introduces our pick of the year

Friday 26 November 2010 01:00

It was the year when so much was supposed to change and, for most readers, so little really did. E-books continued to rack up around 97 per cent of all book-industry chatter while amounting to (at most) 3 per cent of the UK market. That will change. Jonathan Franzen's US digital sales for Freedom approached one-third, but for an old-fashioned domestic epic which proved that classic fiction could still make front-page news. Likewise, Stephen Fry might have Tweeted, blogged and app'ed for Britain in flogging his wares, but the book he offered was a thoroughly literary memoir – The Fry Chronicles – steeped in cultural traditions. With his Life, a gold-plated Roller of an autobiography, Keith Richards did more for his reputation than a dozen Stones tours ever could. Books still matter, as an art-form, as a business – and as a public event. Over the following pages, our critics choose the best of 2010 from every major branch of the craft: poetry to travel; children's writing to history; music to food; fiction to biography. Oddly, but revealingly, one of my very favourite books of the year has slipped through the cracks. Its project began in another medium, radio, but found its lasting home within a volume that beautifully mingled history, art, travel, cultural theory and even a little memoir: A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (Allen Lane, £30). All those precious artefacts ended in another one: a book.

Art By Michael Glover

There is always so much art. It never stops coming. What we need is a book or two which will give us some sense of perspective on the past and the present. Fortunately, there are several which fit the bill this season. How, for example, has art meshed with history down the centuries? How has it interpreted historical events? How to Read World History in Art (Ludion, £19.95) must be among the dullest and the least pithy titles of the decade. Fortunately, its content, by contrast, is an informative delight.

Spread by spread, the authors, Flavio Febbraro and Burkhard Schwetje, interpret and contextualise works of art which have recorded significant moments - The Death of Socrates, the Reformation, the French Revolution, for example – and explain to us the different ways in which these works have memorialised (and skewed) the past. Art: the Whole Story (ed. Stephen Farthing; Thames & Hudson, £19.95) is an abundantly illustrated overview of art from East and West. Moving chronologically, it discusses movements and periods, and also plucks out individual works for particular scrutiny.

Amy Dempsey's Styles, Schools and Movements (Thames & Hudson, £18.95) does the same sort of thing for the modern era (which, for your interest, is said to begin as far back as 1860). What Makes a Masterpiece? (Thames & Hudson, 24.95) is handed over to a team of critics and artists to choose their favourites. They range from Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel in Padua to the Reclining Buddha of Polonnaruwa (selected by that acknowledged contemplative, Antony Gormley) - and explain why. Intelligent, lucid, intimate, the book is also beautifully illustrated.

Those who want to have nothing but the potentially exciting future of art in their sights should buy an excellent book presented a bit like a cross between a large-format glossy magazine and a tabloid newspaper, all bound between stiff wraps. In Creamier (Phaidon, £24.95), ten curators have each chosen ten emerging artists to write about. The choice is stimulating, and the presentation feels suitably fresh and quirky.

From the general to the particular: digits. Few artists can work without fingers. Fingers have also held a particular fascination for painters. The Finger Handbook (Yale, £18.99), by the curator and art historian Angus Trimble, is written skippingly, and wears its wide-ranging scholarship lightly. It deals, among other things, with the representation of fingers in art, and how cultures have treated them in divergently interesting ways. Above all, as its author explains in his breezily engaging way, "in the manner of a trusty coastal lighthouse, it is intended to cast a revolving beam across a surprisingly complicated fingerscape". Also occupying this middle realm between art and ideas is Peter Vergo's The Music of Painting (Phaidon, £39.95). This is a lucid and engrossing examination of the relationship between music, modernism and the visual arts. Why, for example, were Cubists so fond of the violin?

Paris Between the Wars: Art, Style and Glamour in the Crazy Years (Thames & Hudson, £28) is Vincent Bouvet and Gerard Durozoi's solid account of the inter-war years in the city which seemed then to epitomise the very spirit of modernity. But the book is to be valued most for the astonishing quality and range of its photographs of paintings, objects, buildings and street scenes – the chief picture editor has done a superb job.

One louche inhabitant of that city then was Alberto Giacometti, whose studio is given the once-over by Michael Peppiatt with In Giacometti's Studio (Yale, £35). Peppiatt almost met Giacometti as a young man, and the book has a pleasingly personal feel to it - as if written from the inside out. Other good monographs include a splendidly illustrated account by several hands of the work of a great collagiste and pioneer of installation art. Kurt Schwitters – Color and Collage (Menil/Yale, £35), edited by Isabel Schulz, is printed on a paper stock which shows off Schwitters's collages better than I have ever seen them reproduced in a book before.

Any review of new art books has to reach a moment of exquisite pain. Gorgeous books have to be described which cost barely affordable sums in these straitened times. Here goes. Matthew Forrer's slip-cased Hokusai (Prestel, £80) is an enthralling, large-format presentation of the Japanese master, complete with scholarly commentary. Another expensive book which does its subject more than justice is Norbert Wolf's definitive catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Albrecht Dürer (Prestel, £80).

Let us then end by plunging down the price scale again, with the best inexpensive art book of the season. It's for children, and relates to the splendid show of Egyptian papyri currently at the British Museum. This tiny book (at £3.99) is published by the British Museum Press: The Complete Book of the Dead of Hunefer. The pull-out papyrus offers us as many magical spells as we could ever need in our backpack as we cautiously navigate from this life to the next.

Memoirs & Biographies By Boyd Tonkin

Frets and feuds about the art, and the health, of traditional biography hide a larger and more hopeful truth. "Life-writing" has fragmented into a mosaic of fertile sub-genres. How, for instance, should you compose a memoir? This year's best gave us a host of alternative modes, each with a story that soared. In This Party's Got To Stop (Granta, £16.99), novelist Rupert Thomson revisited a weird mid-1980s summer of bereavement, drift and simmering sibling rivalry, captured in his unsettling, hallucinogenic prose.

With My Father's Fortune (Faber, £16.99), multi-talented Michael Frayn explored with charm and cunning his resourceful dad's wayward route from London poverty to far-from-dull suburbia, and in doing so uncovered his own creative roots. Another capitvating memoir of a father, although with a darker backdrop, came from the Colombian writer Hector Abad. In Oblivion (translated Anne McLean; Old Street, £16.99), he set his doctor father's struggle for social reform against oppression in Medellín, and within a richly depicted frame of warm family life.

Elsewhere, in The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal (Chatto & Windus, £16.99) made the hunt for a collection of rare netsuke the spine of a far-reaching family history that melds the pursuit of beautiful art with the flight from atrocious history. After a perfect storm of personal crises, Katherine Rich moved to Udaipur in Rajasthan. In Dreaming in Hindi (Portobello, £12.99), she partnered her quest for inner renewal with an enthralling journey into the mysteries of language, and the enigmas of contemporary India.

In Just Kids (Bloomsbury, £18.99), musician-writer Patti Smith returned to New York in the early 1970s, and her loving friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The grace and poise of her sketch of a vanished time and mood lift this polished gem way above the ranks of rock-star confessionals. In another part of the musical forest, but with just as sure a literary touch, that outstanding pianist and educator Susan Tomes took us inside the world of the over-worked, under-valued classical player in Out of Silence (Boydell, £19.99). I wish idiots who bleat about the "elitism" of the classical tradition could at least pick up this generous, friendly, revealing diary of a year's hard slog.

At fuller length, and with a few longueurs, Antonia Fraser built a memoir around a life-changing relationship in her account of the decades she shared with Harold Pinter, Must You Go? (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20). Beyond the round of starry chums and glittering prizes, what impresses most is her wise chronicle of love as a long haul, celebrated as much – or more – through years of illness as in its first bright bloom. Sometimes harrowing, ultimately uplifting, Candia McWilliam's What To Look For In Winter (Cape, £18.99) traced in frank but artful prose a distinguished writer's descent from brittle glamour into a darkness both emotional and (through an eye condition thankfully reversed) physical as well.

Two great African novelists retraced their childhoods paths through the conflict-ridden colonial twilight on either side of the continent. Both came back with absorbing personal reflections that illuminate not just their later careers, but the state of their peoples too: from Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiong'o with Dreams in a Time of War (Harvill Secker, £12.99); and, from Nigeria, Chinua Achebe with The Education of a British-Protected Child (Allen Lane, £20). The sorrows of total war shadowed Daniel Swift's investigation of a Lancaster-flying grandfather and his curtailed life, Bomber County (Hamish Hamilton, £20). This thoughtful hybrid indicated how family memoir can now recruit a spread of other genres, from military history to literary criticism.

All these authors grasped that succesful life-writing involves a canny choice of angle, span and focus. Many found that less can mean more. Yet life stories at banquet rather than snack size made some big splashes, cooked up in bulk for loyal followers. Two fanfared heavyweight deliveries came from Tony Blair in A Journey (Hutchinson, £20), and Stephen Fry in The Fry Chronicles (Michael Joseph, £20). Both sprawling apologias capture the voice, the tone, the world-view of their originators with utter fidelity. If you like their company at all, you will like it wholesale. The same logic goes for a veteran gadfly who would gleefully sting both preceding memoirists: Christopher Hitchens, in Hitch-22 (Atlantic, £20).

Amid this multitude of free-style memoirs, how can we still enjoy the historical or literary biography? Perhaps by seeking out those authors who approach other lives with the same flexibility of form that new-wave autobiographers bring to their own. A prince among biographers, Michael Holroyd (he says) wrote his swansong with A Book of Secrets (Chatto & Windus, £16.99). This beguiling trio of sketches of near-forgotten women somehow morphed into an oblique portrait of the artist himself.

In Lives Like Loaded Guns (Virago, £20), Lyndall Gordon matched a study of Emily Dickinson and her supercharged poetry with a history of her fractious New England clan, and the posthumous quarrels over her verse and legacy. With Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China (Profile, £15), Hilary Spurling moved from the blockbuster biography to a nimble but densely textured account of the American novelist's life-defining spell in China, through a pivotal period of the country's recent history.

In Romain Gary: a tall story (Harvill Secker, £30), David Bellos stylishly presented the scandal-strewn career of a rebel French writer. His dash and drive showed that there need be nothing stuffy about formal biography. Also inspired by France, Sarah Bakewell gave a pillar of its classic canon, Montaigne, new vigour in her delightful How to Live (Chatto & Windus, £16.99). Historical biography, literary essay, witty self-help guide: Bakewell wrapped up many genres into a package to savour. Montaigne himself would have loved this radiant tribute to his happy scepticism.

General fiction By Boyd Tonkin

Given a couple years of cool hindsight, will Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (Fourth Estate, £20) tower over the fictional landscape of 2010 as mightily as it has seemed to do this autumn? Much will depend on your perspective. Franzen certainly delivered a thoroughly involving and enjoyable domestic epic of private and (on the margins) public life in the fractured Middle America of the new millennium. Yet one reason for his people's nagging anguish lies in the threat posed to their blessed nation's special place and case in a world or rival views and powers.

In that world, other readers may prefer to remember this year as the time when another close-focus epic of interlinked amorous and social affairs reached us: Orhan Pamuk's grand, gorgeous monument to a changing Istanbul, The Museum of Innocence (translated by Maureen Freely; Faber, £17.99). Or, perhaps, as the time when, a short time after his own bereavement, David Grossman laid bare the flayed soul of Israel in his sweeping chronicle of a fatal embrace between the personal and political fates, To the End of the Land (trans. Jessica Cohen; Cape, £18.99). Or else as the year when, in We, The Drowned (trans. Charlotte Barslund; Harvill Secker, £17.99), Carsten Jensen took the seafaring history of small Danish port and made of it a mighty ocean-going vessel of stories about a whole world in motion. Franzen's folk worry about American decline; but the deafness of so much of our own elite literary culture to anything but transatlantic news might cheer them up a bit.

Besides, other US voices deserved to carry over the oceans. Lyrical but merciless, Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic (Tuskar Rock, £12.99) gave us the financial-meltdown novel many craved, against a deep background of national and family history. Rebecca Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Atlantic, £12.99) finds a dazzlingly smart, funny and affecting route into another crisis – of faith and doubt – via the spiritual, and corporeal, plight of a secular pop psychologist. Paul Harding's Tinkers (Heinemann, £12.99) arrived from nowhere to take the Pulitzer Prize with its richly imagined, beautifully phrased, death-bed meditation on a New England life. Meanwhile, Sam Lipsyte in The Ask (Old Street, £11.99) – another drama of the downturn – matched scathing satire with some of the year's finest comic prose.

On this side of the Atlantic, that same precious commodity snared a rare high-status medal when Howard Jacobson took the Man Booker prize with The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury, £18.99). Jacobson's, totally correct, answer to to the dismissal of comedy in fiction has been to prove that the wrenching humour of his characters doesn't stand against their reflection on time, memory and loss; it stems entirely from it. Tragedy and comedy also coalesced with exuberant results in the test-tube of an upscale Dublin school with Paul Murray's Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton, £13.99), a three-part invention that fearlessly collided slapstick, satire and pathos.

The absurdity and humiliation of social exclusion drives the comedy of one of the year's most auspicious debuts: Serious Men by Manu Joseph (John Murray, £15.99), with its low-class Mumbai wannabe serving, and scheming against, pompous men of science and power. Other first novels that promised a rich harvest of fictional fruits included A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee (Constable, £12.99), ingenious and challenging in its convergence of the kinds of story (Indian migrants; Oxford students; young gay men) often kept in separate boxes; The Boy Next Door (Sceptre, £14.99), Irene Sabatini's tough-minded, tenderly voiced love story from turbulent Zimbabwe; Mr Chartwell (Fig Tree, £12.99, Rebecca Hunt's slyly witty magic-realist take on Winston Churchill's depression and the society he helped to make; and Ned Beauman's Boxer Beetle (Sceptre, £12.99), an uproarious, genre-bending tale of fisticuffs and Fascism in 1930s London.

Another debutante who showcased the sure command of a singular voice, and the power to make it carry, was Emma Henderson. In Grace Williams Says It Loud (Sceptre, £15.99), she made the story of an asylum resident's survival through upheavals in psychiatry and society far more inspiring than a hundred feelgood tomes. Her novel stands comprison with the linguistic, and emotional, resourcefulness of Emma Donoghue's Room (Picador, £14.99), the Booker-shortlisted monologue of little Jack as his post-abduction confinement yields to the new enigmas of freedom.

Neglected by the Booker crew, Jon McGregor showed in his Faulkner-esque elegy for a soldier-turned-addict, Even the Dogs (Bloomsbury, £12.99), that no British fiction now writes more finely carved prose - and none more firmly allies artistry and empathy. Also overlooked by our premier prize (although smartly picked up by Richard & Judy), Maria McCann in The Wilding (Faber, £7.99) proved in her second flavoursome period piece that she can reanimate Stuart England with the same level of storytelling brio and bravado that Hilary Mantel brings to Tudor times.

It proved a strong year for novels that ambitiously sought to tether grand ideas to gripping narrative. Solar (Cape, £16.99) was Ian McEwan's crafty, comic spin on climate change, through a rascally scientist's high-consumption odyssey in search of an Earth-rescuing technology. It might have won far greater acclaim had it not borne the signature of a writer whose talent we lazily take for granted. In contrast, Tom McCarthy now ranks as critical flavour of the moment. In C, (Cape, £17.99), his novel of a radio pioneer who receives and trasmits all the ominous signals of the fatal 20th century, new readers could grasp just how boldly he has tried to balance sumptuous period-fiction prose with a mischievous desire to sabotage his chosen form. For me, however, the Austrian wunderkind Daniel Kehlmann offered a snappier, cannier approach to the impact of new technology on old humanity in the tragi-comic tales of Fame (trans. Carol Brown Janeway; Quercus, £12.99). If Kehlmann presents us with top-grade German-language gifts in compact packages, then so does Jenny Erpenbeck. In her evocative and elegant Visitation (trans. Susan Bernofsky; Portobello, £10.99), she makes a country house in Brandenburg and its ever-changing residents into the vessel of a century of change.

Further across the seas, Colombia's rising star Juan Gabriel Vásquez took the life, and myth, of Joseph Conrad and his creation of Nostromo as the core motif of The Secret History of Costaguana (trans. Anne McLean; Bloomsbury, £15.99). From this hallowed material he fashioned not a literary conceit but a subtle and startling story of the clash between fact and fiction; the old world and the new. Those confrontations also helped to shape a rambunctious epic of modern Manila, Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco (Picador, £14.99). If not quite the Great Filipino Novel, this Rushdie-esque carnival of tall stories and low deeds will do very nicely for now.

Deeper into Asia, and into the past, David Mitchell again gave us a pitch-perfect masterclass in the the art, and the magic, of narrative in his Japan-set historical saga of cross-cultural passion and curiosity, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre, £17.99). As soaring invention meets stubborn circumstance, Nagasaki 1800 becomes the site where the many meanings of freedom brush and bruise together. This is my English-language novel of the year. Yet, at the extravagant height of his powers, Mitchell now begins to attract mean-minded denigrators. In 2011, let's try to cure ourselves of this British disease.

Crime & thrillers By Barry Forshaw

Fast-fading 2010 produced an embarrassment of riches for the crime-fiction aficionado. While bestselling names phoned in some uninspired work, others shone brilliantly, with the burgeoning field of crime in translation steaming ahead. Jo Nesbø's The Snowman (translated by Don Bartlett; Vintage, £6.99) consolidated his reputation as a Scandinavian novelist ready to fill any Larsson-shaped holes. Nesbø, one ex-rock star who can write, fuses urgent storytelling with a keen engagement with social issues. The Snowman, with detective Harry Hole up against an implacable killer in a snowbound Norway, is certainly the most disturbing of Nesbø's books – which is saying something.

Still abroad (but in more sultry climes), Gianrico Carofiglio's Involuntary Witness (trans. Howard Curtis; Bitter Lemon, £7.99) has one grateful that the author swapped prosecuting criminals for rendering them in fiction as ambitious as this, with his lawyer hero involved in murder and racism. But the grass wasn't always greener abroad. Under British skies, home-grown talent was flourishing: Belinda Bauer's prize-winning Blacklands (Corgi, £7.99) - about the relationship between a murderous paedophile and a boy trying to find the body of his uncle - managed to glean the best word-of-mouth for any new crime novel in years.

The avenues of historical crime are now like Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon, but several novels made stepping back in time worthwhile. William Ryan's The Holy Thief (Mantle, £12.99) plunges the reader into an atmospherically conjured 1930s Moscow, with policeman Alexei Korolev getting into deep trouble. If you have a taste for period novels that marry gamey locales with incident-stuffed plotting, CJ Sansom's books featuring his hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake are essential reading. Heartstone (Mantle, £18.99) may be a touch prolix, but Shardlake's battle with chicanery in every echelon of Tudor England is riveting.

John le Carré's Our Kind of Traitor (Viking, £18.99) is, strictly speaking, espionage, but features a marvellously drawn master criminal. Thankfully, the author's anti-American political hectoring is now on the back burner, and this richly rewarding novel is a reminder of what a national treasure we have in him.

The Dashiell Hammett estate gave the nod to a successful prequel to one of the great detective novels, The Maltese Falcon, with Joe Gores' Spade and Archer (Orion, £12.99). Here we encounter youthful versions of the characters: private eye Sam Spade, of course, and his partner Miles Archer. Gores (who worked as a detective) demonstrates an amazing skill in recreating the milieu of one of the genre's most iconic books.

MR Hall's The Disappeared (Pan, £6.99 is a hypnotic piece of work. Hall's protagonist, the vulnerable Jenny Cooper, is settling into her new job as coroner and surviving on a diet of anti-depressants and downers. She has to contend not just with corpses but with Christian fundamentalists, Muslim divorcées and an impossible teenage son.

To its credit, the independent publisher Quercus has been banging on doors to obtain the UK recognition sorely due to Peter Temple, one of Australia's most respected literary crime novelists. Truth (Quercus, £7.99) had Melbourne homicide cop Stephen Villani finding the cracks in his private life spreading when a series of fires ravages the city, and a murder case becomes the catalyst for his own meltdown.

Already a success in Sweden, Camilla Läckberg is set to make a long overdue breakthrough here with The Stonecutter (trans. Steven T Murray; HarperCollins, £18.99); credit-crunch Ireland is the timely setting for Alan Glynn's Winterland (Faber, £11.99); while Imogen Robertson's Anatomy of Murder (Headline Review, £18.99) may have cheekily borrowed its title from an Otto Preminger film, but is otherwise exuberantly original. As is Andrew Taylor's elegant The Anatomy of Ghosts (Michael Joseph, £18.99). And debuts don't come more blistering than American writer John Verdon's Think of a Number (Penguin, £6.99).

History By Stephen Howe

There's a small room in my house which long ago acquired, for my partner, the title "the Miseries Room". Its shelves are mostly populated by books about wars, genocides, famines, Nazis, terrorism and suchlike delights. A disconcertingly high proportion of this year's finest history books will find places in that room. Grim stories and disquieting revelations abound. For instance, if asked who was responsible for modern history's greatest humanly created loss of life most people would surely answer Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. Yet that role of dishonour may actually belong to Mao Zedong, who between 1958 and 1962, in a misconceived attempt at crash economic transformation, the "Great Leap Forward", caused at least 35, and probably more like 45 million Chinese to die from starvation, overwork and casual official brutality. Frank Dikötter, in Mao's Great Famine (Bloomsbury, £25) reveals the terrible story in unprecedented detail.

Yet the bloodbath Mao unleashed was at least, for the most part, avoidable rather than fully intended. For deliberate mass murder, Hitler and Stalin still stand unsurpassed. Although we have long possessed vast stores of knowledge about their crimes, it may be that we still misunderstand their character and extent – not least because we fail to see how the two great dictatorships interacted. We miss the significance of where, between the mid-1930s and the mid-1940s, the worst horrors took place: Poland, western Russia, and what are now Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. So argues Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands. (Bodley Head, £25), which seeks persuasively and movingly to offer a new interpretive framework for the nightmare of Europe's mid-20th century.

The destruction of the centuries-old, effervescent multicultural urban civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean was much slower than in eastern Europe – but no less sure, and also largely caused by explosions of ethnic and religious hatred manipulated if not created by rival dictators. Philip Mansel's elegiac Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe in the Mediterranean (John Murray, £25) traces the rise and fall of three great cities of the sea: Smyrna (now Izmir), Alexandria and Beirut. All still stand, but as Mansel argues, all seem today inward-looking places when measured against their cosmopolitan, creative pasts.

If there is, perhaps, more than a hint of elitism in Levant's lament for the loss of cultural glories, then Anthony J Hall offers a dramatic global corrective in Earth into Property (McGill-Queen's University Press, £22.99). This capacious, and impassioned, survey of how the rise of global capitalism has victimised or destroyed the world's least privileged people, especially the indigenes of the Americas and the Pacific, deserves a far wider readership than it's likely to get via a small Canadian publisher.

Even Hall's global gaze seems restricted if set beside Ian Morris' Why the West Rules – For Now (Profile, £25). Some critics are sniffy about the dodgy meta-theorising so often involved in the "rise and fall of civilisations" genre. Often, they're right: see the avalanche of damning critique on Jared Diamond's or, still more, Samuel Huntington's work. Morris, if not immune to such assault, has produced maybe the best-argued, most thought-provoking of all such exercises.

Compared to the vast scale of ethnic conflict, dispossession and murder chronicled by Dikötter, Mansel, Hall and Snyder, the awfulness detailed in Gerard Murphy's The Year of Disappearances (Gill & Macmillan, £24.99) may seem almost trivial in scale: a mere few dozen killings in Cork city in 1921-2. Yet Murphy's book conveys, at least for most British and Irish readers, a very intimate kind of disturbance. This is certainly not a great book: too much speculation, too many small errors. Still, Murphy's argument that the "Old IRA" in Cork committed multiple previously unknown murders – many clearly sectarian, and many involving children as victims – is explosive. As 2010 moves towards its end, Irish life is saturated with talk of whether the economic crisis and international bailout mark the end of the country's sovereignty. Fintan O'Toole's Ship of Fools (Faber, £8.99) is maybe the most corruscating indictment. In striking counterpoint is the renewed questioning of how independence was achieved in the first place. If it involved the kind of vileness Murphy alleges, what does this imply for the country's national pride, its self-image? For the harshest critics, the story bookended by Murphy and O'Toole becomes a squalid one throughout – 90 years of independent life which began amid a sordid, often sectarian murder campaign and now ends in a less bloody but equally grimy morass of lies and corruption.

After all this misery, it is good to be able to salute writing whose message is of hope, progress and moral courage. Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Honor Code (Norton, £19.99) is not, strictly speaking, a history book, but rather a work of social and moral philosophy which draws on historical evidence. Appiah traces how taken-for-granted customs – duelling, slave-trading and Chinese footbinding – were ended through true "moral revolutions". The message is that morality matters, and social action can change things for the better. It is pleasant also, if bittersweet, to salute a life-affirming piece of reminiscence and micro-history like Tony Judt's The Memory Chalet (Heinemann, £16.99). Judt's death, aged only 62, was perhaps the saddest of all the too-numerous losses the historical profession had to mark during 2010.

Other notable achievements this year can be shelved somewhere other than in my Miseries Room. Gyan Prakash's Mumbai Fables (Princeton, £20.95) is a delight. Mumbai's history is almost as full of crime, corruption, terror and chauvinism as of fabulous creativity. In Prakash's account, rightly, it is the latter which predominates. More hugely impressive historical studies from 2010 which celebrate peaceful pursuits rather than blood and bigotry include Rachel Hewitt's great study of the British Ordnance Survey, Map of a Nation (Granta, £25), and Michael Wood's The Story of England (Viking, £20), as told through the chronicles of one village across the centuries.

Stephen Howe is professor of post-colonial history at Bristol University

Food & cookery By Christopher Hirst

The best new book for the culinary greenhorn comes from a woman who died 18 years ago. At Elizabeth David's Table (Michael Joseph, £30) is a collection of her most approachable dishes accompanied by specially commissioned photographs. It works well, particularly in reminding us of the practicality of her recipes. When I baked her pissaladière, which requires a base of buttery pizza dough rather than puff pastry, it was reduced to a few crumbs two minutes after emerging from the oven. Her rendition of chicken with tarragon amply fulfils the description, "one of the great treats of the summer." Readers who devour this book should move on to David's originals, republished by Grub Street.

Oddly, Nigel Slater's latest offering begins with page 627. This is because Tender: Volume II (Fourth Estate, £30) continues the story of cooking the crop from his north London garden. Following his epic consideration of vegetables, Slater explores two dozen fruits ranging from apples to whitecurrants. With typical generosity, he gives 30 pages on plums and 25 on damsons. Imparting a wealth of information, horticultural and gastronomic, this book grows in stature the more you explore it. For gooseberry pie, he recommends "a soft, fragile pastry crust the colour of old linen... that collapses beneath the fork, as gentle as a whisper". No one has ever written more mouth-wateringly about food. The Tender diptych constitutes a culinary masterpiece.

Aside from the splats and drizzles that ornament many pages of my copy, the best tribute that can be paid to Yotam Ottolenghi's spectacular second book Plenty (Ebury, £25) is that you would never know it was a vegetarian book by taste alone. Dishes like mushroom and herb polenta or lentils with tomatoes and gorgonzola are rich enough to satisfy the most ardent carnivore. This Israeli-born chef takes a cosmopolitan approach to the bright flavours of the Middle East, so a cucumber salad with smashed garlic (a terrific combination) is lifted by a dressing of rice wine and sesame oil.

Nigella Lawson's Kitchen (Chatto & Windus, £26) is a big book weighted towards hefty recipes like chocolate peanut-butter cheesecake ("unashamed indulgence, wallowingly so"). There is no denying her devotion to food but Lawson appears to think the guiding principle of this tome ("The kitchen is where I feel most at home") has never occurred to anyone else. Along with her impulse towards embellishment in both recipes (chocolate key lime pie) and prose, I find the Nigella-centredness off-putting: "I am never more serene than when I have a crumble baking in the oven." The word count on "I" in this book must run into the thousands. The cumulative effect of this bizarre production was that I didn't feel the slightest desire to make any one of the dishes in its 500 pages.

The latest cookbook from Rose Prince comes with a polemic thrown in for free. "This is a book about feminine cookery, at its best heroic, generous, practical and nurturing," she insists in Kitchenella (Fourth Estate, £26). "Men like to cook in ways that are spontaneous – and can be abandoned while they go off and do something else." A much-needed corrective to alpha-male TV chefs, this book is brimming with sturdy recipes. The addition of simmered, slightly caramelised apples raises rice pud to unexpected heights. Tartiflette, a winter dish from the Savoie, is a sustaining casserole of potatoes, bacon and reblochon cheese. Men should cook it right now before they feel the urge to do something else.

Surprise bestseller of the year has been The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit (Bloomsbury, £18.99). Original and prodigious in range, it explores culinary partners for 99 foodstuffs. It is an impressive production, especially in the way that its recondite market (cooks drawn to outré combinations) has been broadened with lively writing, but the section on oysters is more fallible than might be expected from a reference work. As a partner for flavours ranging from melon to chicken, Segnit mentions only Ostrea edulis, the European native oyster. These sweet, pricey delicacies should be eaten raw with nothing more than a drop of lemon juice. The oyster that can stand up to assertive culinary partners is the far cheaper Pacific oyster or Crassostrea gigas. The "algae-trimmed Marennes" that Segnit wrongly believes to be native oysters are in fact Pacifics.

The Balthazar Cookbook (Absolute, £25) is perfect gastroporn for those of us who lack the funds to visit New York or the clout to secure a booking at Balthazar, an eatery patronised by Bono, Anna Wintour, Joan Didion.... Boasting an introduction by that robust aesthetician Robert Hughes, the volume interlards recipes for classic brasserie fodder – potage St Germain (or pea soup), duck confit, brandade de morue – with snaps of "the cavernous dining room... with a worn, browned, tobacco-fugged look." Patron Keith McNally is due to open a sister joint in his native London. So, we have a book of French food served in a New York restaurant owned by an Englishman. It's not bad at that, but why isn't there a cookbook from La Coupole or another of the Parisian brasseries that inspired McNally's clever facsimile? The answer is simple. The French don't buy cookbooks.

Christopher Hirst's 'Love Bites' is published by Fourth Estate

Poetry by Boyd Tonkin

In a year of strong collections I will - perhaps unfairly - pick just one volume of entirely new work: Human Chain by Seamus Heaney (Faber, £12.99), a return from the limbo of illness that shows the flame of his poetry still aglow, as quietly fierce as ever as it flickers over scenes of war, of memory, of family to bring heat and light from the past into the present.

Heaney, occupies his rightful place in the year's stand-out anthology: The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty (Penguin Classics, £40). From bards of the eighth century to Nick Laird (born 1975), with ample space for translations from the Irish (over many centuries), for ballads and songs and rhymes, this sumptuous 1000-page gathering will last many winters out.

With a much briefer compass but a formidable range, Carol Ann Duffy selected from her work on every aspect of desire, devotion and disappointment for Love Poems (Picador, £8.99). The Poet Laureate, as we know, always matches versatility with virtuosity. Another spelndid choice from Duffy's back catalogue, with some fresh gems thrown in, came in her New and Collected Poems for Children (Faber, £9.99): as inventive, exuberant and utterly un-puerile as the verse for young readers of her great predecessor, Ted Hughes.

The year saw precious opportunities to catch up with some brilliant careers in verse. We lost the great Peter Porter, but in The Rest on the Flight (Picador, £12.99), Don Paterson and Sean O'Brien edited a superbly wide-ranging survey of a prodigious talent, who never for one line let go of his humour, humanity and curiosity. As a posthumous tribute, it left me awed and thrilled. UA Fanthorpe died in 2009, and this year an edition of her Collected Poems (Enitharmon, £25) let us view what Carol Ann Duffy calls her "wonderful, warm, wise" work. Both this book and the Porter can be read almost as sweeping autobiographical novels. In their companionable variety and tough-minded ingenuity, they delight far more than most fiction ever will.

No one would claim that the inimitable, though much imitated, John Ashbery opens the door to newcomers as readily as the previous pair do. But, in editor Mark Ford's scrupulous edition, his Collected Poems 1956-1987 (Carcanet, £19.95) allows us to hear the full range of a unique voice. Leaving the reader so often on a knife edge between exhilaration and bemusement, Ashbery takes poetry to the outermost limits of imagination without ever losing touch with his gift for music, and his sense of shape.

My discovery of the year arrived from India, in Collected Poems in English by Arun Kolatkar (Bloodaxe, £12). Sublime and satirical, comic and visionary by turns, close to the gutter but looking for the stars, Kolatkar over many years (he died in 2004) became a Bombay bard to match, or outperform, the city's novelists. Any reader of Midnight's Children, and of its tribe of fictional children, should get to know Kolatkar too.

Children's books By Nicholas Tucker

The Orchard Book of Nursery Rhymes For Your Baby (Orchard, £12.99) is the latest anthology of these incomparable ditties. Benignly illustrated by Penny Dann, even the old woman who lived in a shoe now comes over as a reformed character, hugging and kissing her children with no whip in sight. A little more angst creeps into Hush, Baby, Hush! (Frances Lincoln, £12.99), a collection of lullabies illustrated by Pam Smy and chosen by Kathy Henderson from all over the world. Printed in English and in their original language, with their tunes also included, they show the way that mothers everywhere have always entreated and just occasionally threatened babies who will not go to sleep. Much smaller, the Tinga Tinga Little Library (Puffin, £4.99) is made up from four tough, tiny board books in a single case, each one taken from traditional African animal stories.

Moving on to picture books, Louise Yates's Dog Loves Books (Jonathan Cape, £10.99) was deservedly short-listed for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. Her story of a book-selling dog better at imagining than shifting his stock is a delight. So too is Viviane Schwarz's extraordinary There are No Cats in this Book (Walker, £10.99). However hard they try to escape, her cats only manage to leave these pages for a short while before storming back with even more friends.

Also more fun than you might predict, In the Beginning (Walker, £12.99) consists of choice stories from the Old Testament. Adapted into clear, simple prose by David Walser and illustrated by Jan Pienkowski with high good humour, this feast of a picture book starts with the creation and finishes with Jonah. Also set in foreign parts, Jane Ray's Ahmed and the Feather Girl (Frances Lincoln, £11.99) must be one of the most beautiful picture books of the year. Its story of how orphan Ahmed discovers a golden egg which hatches into a little girl deserves to become a classic.

Monsters and vampires are currently everywhere in children's fiction, so young readers might as well know something about their origins. Pop-Up Frankenstein (Walker, £12.99) retells Mary Shelley's melancholy classic, complete with the funeral pyre on which the monster ends his life leaping up from the final page. Told in graphic novel style plus some ingenious paper architecture, this is a book for everyone. For a lighter touch, Ross Collins's Dear Vampa (Hachette, £10.99) artfully turns everything round by featuring a family of long-suffering vampires driven to move house by some noisy new neighbours who are not quite what they seem.

Karin Fernald's The Dumpy Princess (Frances Lincoln, £9.99) tells the story of the young Queen Victoria through her troubled childhood to the moment she took the crown. Cheerfully illustrated by Sophie Foster, this is child-centred history at its most approachable. But for laugh-aloud humour, look no further than Andy Stanton's Mr Gum and the Secret Hideout (Egmont, £5.99). This is an author who is consistently funny, not just on every page but sometimes on every line. He is well matched by David Tazzyman's witty line drawings.

Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth (Puffin, £10.99) is another sure-fire hit, as is the late and much missed Eva Ibbotson's last novel, The Ogre of Oglefort (Macmillan, £9.99). Written when she was over 80, it still radiates youthful energy. For a nice long read plus plenty of intriguing pen and ink drawings, go to Alan Snow's Worse Things Happen at Sea! (Oxford, £12.99). Sumptuously produced, this breezy story is constantly entertaining.

Penny Dolan's A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. (Bloomsbury, £10.99) is a Dickensian tale where the evil of the villains is only equaled in volume by the generosity of the various benefactors young Mouse meets after running away from an appalling 19th-century boarding school. His final refuge, a crumbling London theatre, is vividly brought to life in a narrative that never flags.

Jasper Fforde's The Last Dragonslayer (Hodder, £12) is also highly recommended. Very funny, with characters called William of Anorak and flying carpets that break down with rug fatigue, it is set in an imaginary time and place when magic is falling out of fashion.

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange struggles to keep her arrogant but fading band of wizards in work; there is also a political crisis looming which is rather more serious.

Serious too, but this time not seeking to be funny, Jenny Downham's You Against Me (David Fickling, £12.99) is a searing story of two families torn apart by a rape charge. It also provides a moving account of first love. While its main topic may not seem too much in the Christmas spirit, its final resolution and the hope it brings along with it most definitely are.

Sport By Chris Maume

See that David Beckham? That could have been me. I could have been Goldenballs. This proposition is, in fact, entirely true: I could have become the most famous footballer in the world – if I'd put in 10,000 hours of motivated, high-quality practice.

This is the message of the fascinating Bounce: How Champions Are Made, (Fourth Estate, £12.99), shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Matthew Syed, the table-tennis international turned journalist, stakes his claim as sporting literature's Malcolm Gladwell. In Outliers, the New Yorker writer examined the factors that contribute to high-level achievement, and Syed takes that strategy and runs with it. God-given talent is a myth and genius a construct, it appears. If we start early enough and work hard enough, we can all be heroes.

Possibly. Ideal for provoking post-Christmas dinner debate is A Book of Heroes or a Sporting Half-Century (Short Books, £20), in which Simon Barnes constructs his 50-strong sporting pantheon. It's a romantic selection, and most of the consensually feted postwar idols are there, though it's not all obvious. Tim Henman, for example, never reached the summit of his sport despite his best efforts. Barnes is also generous to the tainted: Ben Johnson's in there, and Flo-Jo. Along the way Barnes's life is sketched out in sporting terms, enhanced by his customarily sharp insights. Spectator sport's basic function, he says, is to provide heroes, and it's difficult to argue with that.

One of his heroes is Tommie Smith, who along with John Carlos made the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. Sporting heroism doesn't necessarily involve winning a race, scoring a goal or taking a wicket, as Blood, Sweat and Treason: Henry Olonga: My Story (VSP, £18.99) demonstrates. During the 2003 Cricket World Cup Olonga, with his Zimbabwe team-mate Andy Flower, took his life in his hands by wearing a black armband during a match to mark the death of democracy in his country. Suspension, death threats and a period in hiding followed, and the story is engagingly told.

Olonga retired after making his stand, since when cricket has been convulsed with change. In the beautifully crafted A Last English Summer (Quercus, £20), Duncan Hamilton – also on the William Hill shortlist, having already won it twice – delivers an elegiac account of last season. He trolls round the grounds at a time when cricket is changing forever and the County Championship, like a shrinking violet at an increasingly packed party, is shoved out to the margins by the biff-bang of Twenty20. Writing with intense feeling for an age that's sliding away, Hamilton explores his own cricketing pantheon while taking the temperature of what's undeniably a struggling patient.

Hamilton apart, the best-written book of this year's bunch is Blood Knots: Of Fathers, Friendship and Fishing (Atlantic, £12.99). Luke Jennings's memoir recounts his classic English middle-class childhood, and beyond, through the prism of his fishing obsession. He had a hero, too, or mentor at least, though I won't spoil the story except by saying that the relationship between the two resonated down the years. This one of those sporting books that even the sportsphobic can appreciate.

Much like Catrine Clay's Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend (Yellow Jersey Press, £16.99). The bare bones of Trautmann's story are well-known – German POW who stays over here when the war ends, becomes a goalkeeper for Manchester City and famously wins the Cup with a broken neck. It's a fantastic story, fleshed out beautifully by Clay.

A punchier offering is Brian Moore's autobiography Beware of the Dog: Rugby's Hard Man Reveals All (Simon & Schuster, £17.99). Moore was the snarling hooker at the heart of a Grand Slam-winning England team who went on to become a frank and forthright summariser for the BBC. He has made his name by telling it like it is, and from the early revelations of child abuse onwards, his book's a compelling read.

Like Moore, the double Tour de France champion Laurent Fignon was deeply passionate about his sport, and could be abrasive. He died of cancer in August at the age of 50, a few months after the English publication of his autobiography We Were Young And Carefree (Yellow Jersey Press, £12.99). He's ruthlessly honest, about himself and about cycling, and he provides a gripping insight into an unrelentingly hard world.

Travel & adventure By Hugh Thomson

A few years ago travel writing seemed to have got stuck in the doldrums, but it has come roaring back. This year's Dolman Travel Book Awards saw a record entry of over 70 titles. Publishers are also finding that travel books can have a longer shelf life than celebrity novels or political memoirs which live and die in one season only.

Tim Butcher has been one of the writers leading the charge. His first book, Blood River, about the Congo, achieved surprising sales. Now with Chasing the Devil (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), he follows Graham Greene's footsteps through West Africa, combining a clear-sighted view of the recent atrocities in Liberia and Sierra Leone . Less dangerous travelling comes from Michael Jacobs in Andes (Granta, £20), a book as monumental as the range it covers. Jacobs aspires to a journey like his hero Humboldt's, which follows the whole chain for thousands of miles from north to south, making observations on natural history, volcanoes and food with equal voracity.

The eagerly awaited Under the Sun: The Letters Of Bruce Chatwin (Jonathan Cape, £25) divided critics, just as he often did in his lifetime. His style of exuberant showmanship is a quality the British are sometimes suspicious of. The letters may occasionally be name-dropping, but Chatwin's endless enthusiasm for travel and the counter-intuitive surprises of foreign cultures ensures that he is never dull, while only those with a heart of stone could fail to be moved by his final, dying correspondence.

Another heavyweight offering came from VS Naipaul with The Masque Of Africa (Picador, £20). Age has not mellowed his views of the continent and the result can be unsettling; Naipaul is never an easy travelling companion but a consistently interesting and provocative one.

There is often a moment in Jonathan Raban's travel books when his boat hits a storm and the contents of his personal library are tossed around the cabin, giving him the chance to adumbrate their contents to the reader as he puts them back in place. Now he has a chance to extend this trope across an entire book. Always a gifted critic, Driving Home (Picador, £20) collects his essays on American travel and literature.

Some of the finest writing of the year came from Anthony Sattin in A Winter on the Nile (Hutchinson, £20). He made his principal characters, the unlikely pairing of Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, dance a ghostly polka as they shadowed each other across Egypt. Another highlight was Ed Vulliamy's harrowing Amexica (Bodley Head, £20), a book based on his long experience as a foreign correspondent along the increasingly frightening border between Mexico and the US. But the joker in the pack was Will Self's Walking To Hollywood (Bloomsbury, £17.99), a bravura attempt to deconstruct the traditional travel book into something wild and strange. He shows that travel writing can be infinitely capacious, as long as you give it enough drugs and light to feed on.

Hugh Thomson's 'The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland' has been reissued by Phoenix

Science & nature By Peter Forbes

The year saw rolling celebrations for the Royal Society's 350th anniversary and a bumper crop of books, entirely doing justice to what must be one of the golden ages of science. The Royal Society Prize for Science Books went to Nick Lane's Life Ascending (Profile, £9.99), an outstanding contribution to evolutionary writing. Especially exciting are the latest ideas on the origin of life from inanimate chemicals and the great breakthrough to multicellular life: it took two billion years to achieve.

On the tenth anniversary of the sequencing of the human genome, two books highlighted the coming revolution in genomic medicine. In The Language of Life (Profile, £15), Francis Collins explains how the plummeting cost of genome sequencing will change every aspect of medicine. Stanley Fields and Mark Johnston, in Genetic Twists of Fate (The MIT Press, £18.95), hang their genetic detective stories on case histories of ordinary citizens and celebrities such as Rita Hayworth, Arthur Ashe, and Lou Gehring, the US baseball player whose name now belongs to the disease that killed him. A heart-rending collision between genetic research and the individual life is the subject of Rebecca's Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Macmillan, £18.99): the story of how cancerous cells taken without consent from a poor black woman in 1951 have proved immortal.

Setting human beings in their environment, the acknowledged master of British natural history, Richard Mabey, has entered a new fertile phase. Weeds (Profile, £15.99) reminds us that Mabey's genius is to bring the apparently marginal in nature sharply into focus. It demonstrates parallels between weeds and that other rogue species: Homo sapiens. The series Mabey began with Flora Britannica rolls on with Bugs Britannica (Collins, £35) – mainly authored by Peter Madden – another sumptuous volume of cultural natural history. The nation's favourite bugs – butterflies – are the stars of Patrick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles (Granta, £20). He goes in search of all 59 native British butterflies in a year but rediscovers plenty more besides, not least "the talent we all have as children for observing and taking pleasure in the marvel of small things".

It was the year when, thanks to the well-orchestrated sabotage of the lobbyists, climate change went off the boil. An indispensable book while we gather our breath for the next phase is Wolfgang Behringer's A Cultural History of Climate (Polity, £17.99). By combining historic data with a lively narrative of the rise and fall of civilisations, Behringer shows how climate has always lurched wildly and how unwise we would be to think that our pleasant climate is likely to last, whatever we do about carbon emissions. Turning to solutions for global warming, it is a relief to find the true hippie/entrepreneurial sprit that gave us the Grateful Dead and Apple alive and well at 70 in Stewart Brand. In Whole Earth Discipline (Atlantic, £8.99), Brand, with a lifetime of impeccable green credentials, wrong-footed some of his eco-friends with his ebullient advocacy of cities, nuclear power, GM crops and geo-engineering as the way forward.

The sciences now talk to each other, after decades of over-specialisation. Intriguing parallels are emerging between creativity in nature (evolution) and in human technological innovation: both seem to require a critical population size. Brand cites the discovery that big cities are proportionately more creative than towns, an idea is developed further in Steven Johnson's inspirational Where Good Ideas Come From (Allen Lane, £20). Johnson belongs to the ideas-a-poppin' school founded by Malcolm Gladwell but his "natural history of innovation" is more grounded than most of the genre. Nothing that matters profoundly to us is taken more for granted than the sun. Richard Cohen had a dazzling epiphany that convinced him to remedy this: the result, Chasing the Sun (Simon & Schuster, £30) is an epic synthesis of science, anecdote and poetry. Cohen tells a good tale and is equally good on science and literature, quoting Joseph Brodsky: "all the best poets are solar-powered". The sun might suffer from over-familiarity, but seeds really are out of sight, out of mind. In truth, we are only as good as next year's seeds and in Seeds, Sex and Civilization (Thames & Hudson, £19.95) Peter Thompson, founder of the Millennium Seed Bank Project at Kew, drives the message home. Thompson, who died without quite completing this book, has made a vital contribution to the future of our species.

Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived' is published by Yale

Comedy By Julian Hall

That comedy and comedians have earned an unheard-of ubiquity few would now deny. There is, perhaps, no better visual reminder than the groaning bookshelves from which various smiling jesters will look down upon you this Yuletide, each with an approach to "memoirising" as distinct as their own respective shticks. In the opening pages of his memoir, Nerd Do Well (Century, £18.99), the Spaced and Shaun of the Dead star Simon Pegg declares his refusal to pay the "fame tax" that, he says, dictates celebrities "surrender" their private life. Instead of declaring everything, Pegg focuses on the jumping-off points that allowed him to go from the GODS (Gloucester Operatic and Dramatic Society) to someone feted and patronised by his own god-like heroes Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas and George A Romero. Ultimately this tax evasion seems to have absented flavoursome characterisations of family and friends; there's an unfortunate paucity of dialogue and warmth.

By contrast, Michael McIntyre's Life and Laughing (Michael Joseph, £20) is, if anything, too warm. In a book as bouncy as his act, McIntyre wraps up his life in noticeable embroidery, bestowing his teenage years with a catchphrase and having his mother exclaim: "I am the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas, don't tell your sister." Of course it is possible that all members of the McIntyre clan had great comic ability. After all, his father, Ray Cameron, was a stand-up and comedy writer. It is when talking about his father's life, through the recollections of his brother, that McIntyre gives fair warning of his tonal intent: "This might be a romanticised version of events but I like it, so I'm going with it."

Paul O'Grady has no need, or time, for much embellishment in his latest volume, The Devil Rides Out (Bantam, £20): the Liverpudlian comedian has lived such a full life and has more than paid his pre-showbiz dues. His extensive CV includes working with difficult children as a peripatetic care officer, a period that saw him deal with nightmarish scenarios that wouldn't be out of place in The Exorcist: the film O'Grady had just seen when we join him at the start of this engrossing autobiography. The disturbing cinematic experience has the 18-year-old O'Grady a bag of nerves, unaware that real life is yet to throw up some spectacles even more troubling. In his hands, though, they are tender and entertaining to read.

That which is grotesque or monstrous, of course, unites O'Grady with another legendary drag: Barry Humphries. While O'Grady's Lily Savage did not stand on ceremony as she cut down her targets, Barry Humphries' Dame Edna was as effective with a withering wit that endangered not just the nearby gladioli. Humphries's "unauthorised biography", Handling Edna (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99), entwines the lives of creator and character, and delivers some choice moments. During one of their face-to-face "meetings" Edna says to Barry that she will one day tell him about something wild she did. Barry asks her, why not tell now, to which Edna replies: "No, Barry, I can't, because I haven't done it yet."

Gladioli, of course, are not only favoured by Dame Edna but also by that other old warbler Morrissey, so beloved of Russell Brand. Brand's Booky Wook II (HarperCollins, £20) suffers by comparison to its predecessor because of his fawning over celebrity colleagues: another "fame tax", but one directly on the reader this time. However, there is some reward within. The eulogising of Jonathan Ross is a necessary part of his attempt to explain away "Sachsgate" and more effective, even, than his pointed blame of the print media.

His namesake Jo Brand also has another instalment of her life out: it seems memoirs now are never-ending, like bad anecdotes. In Can't Stand Up for Sitting Down (Review, £20), she has chosen to chop up her fame into a pick-and-mix affair with vignettes headed, for example, "Mates", "My Best and Worst Comedy Clubs" and "(Not) Doing Ads". In the latter section, she defers to Bill Hicks, suggesting we seek the late comedian's take on the subject in preference to her own mild stance. What a way to sell yourself: Jo, advertising, in any form, is not for you. This referral only highlights a question mark over this book: the one that asks of its format whether it's lazy or clever. That question is sometimes posed by her act itself.

With an album out as well as some limp internet shorts, one wonders if cult comic turned ITV star Harry Hill is starting to spread himself a bit too thinly. Livin' The Dreem (Faber & Faber, £18.99), a year in the imagined life of Hill's persona, could easily be just another thowaway idea. But the book burbles along rather nicely and the "seigneur of silly" shows that his jester's stick is still sharp. His entry for 22 April, for example, has him filming Britain's 100 Favourite Trees: "Due to budgetary constraints, it was pretty much me in front of a blue screen operating the camera with a foot pedal."

Film & performance By Arifa Akbar

Susan Boyle might have reminded us that global fame is sometimes only a reality TV show away but her recently published life-story aside, this year has been a strong one for silver celebrity memoirs, written by those who have spent decades, not days, honing their craft – Judi Dench, Simon Callow and Steven Berkoff, to name a few. Most memorable was Michael Caine's The Elephant to Hollywood (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), the actor's second autobiography which traces his impoverished beginnings as Maurice Micklewhite in London's Elephant and Castle to his breakthrough role in Zulu (1964), and entry to Hollywood. This follow-up might have been seemed over-indulgent were it not for his self-deprecating vignettes, told in a voice as distinctive as his spoken one, that led to critical comparisons with David Niven's classic The Moon's a Balloon.

Among the season's most revelatory biographies was one which used as its central source the tempestuous exchange of love letters published in Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger's Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and The Marriage of the Century (JR Books, £20). This epistolary material broke new ground after authors were given unique access to Taylor's correspondence, and illuminated the inner workings of this most public of Hollywood love affairs between "Liz and Dick" from their instant sexual chemistry to the drink binges, romantic extravagances, fights, reunions and medical problems.

Christopher Stevens's authorised biography of the comedian and actor, Kenneth Williams, Born Brilliant (John Murray, £25), again used previously unseen letters and interviews with friends, Barbara Windsor, Stanley Baxter, Nicholas Parsons and Michael Parkinson, to present a portrait far more sympathetic than the ascerbic one conjured by Williams' edited diary extracts in 1993. A TV personality memoir that transcended the bounds of the genre's naval-gazing parts was Fiona Phillips's story of caring for parents suffering with Alzheimer's disease, Before I Forget: A Daughter's Story (Preface, £18.99). The former GMTV presenter who gave up her job after her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, captured powerfully the messy emotions that accompany the impact of dementia on sufferers' families.

Buried treasure found in the form of 10 mislaid episodes of Hancock's Half Hour, was one of the year's most wondrous excavations from the BBC's archives. Published in their entirety as The Lost Hancock Scripts (JR Books, £16.99), the episodes from the 1950s are more than mere comedy memorabilia; a forward written by Matt Lucas and David Williams hailed screenwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson as rare talents whose "best work can stand alongside dramatists like Pinter and Beckett".

As a social history of London's Theatreland, Michael Codron and Alan Strachan's Putting it on (Duckworth Press, £25) stands out for Codron's wealth of hands-on experience as a producer who has worked on nearly 200 West End shows over 50 years . This behind-the-scenes peek at theatre's past is brought alive with the kind of colour sometimes missing from more academic accounts. Apollo's Angels (Granta, £30), a history of ballet, meanwhile, revisited the debate on how the art form whose "masters are dead and gone" can continue to have contemporary relevance. Written by Jennifer Homans, a former dancer, it begins in the European courts, where a performance was a political event, and zips through the centuries to examine the power and potency of ballet today.

David Thomson's magnificent door-stopper of a reference book, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Little, Brown, £35), sets itself apart from the regular hail of film guides by daring to have an opinion – sometimes an irreverent one – on the 1,000 figures it profiles. Thomson has added 300 new entries to this fifth edition. The search for a seasonal stocking-filler need go no further.

Music By Liz Thomson

This is the life. Believe it or not I haven't forgotten any of it," declares Keith Richards on the back of his autobiography, Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20). That's one of many digs at Mick Jagger, once forced to return a million-pound advance for his memoirs when he discovered that he was all a-blank. Sir Mick "started to become unbearable" long before the knighthood. Wizened Keef is a study in paradox. He has enjoyed every moment of rock'n' roll excess, including a backseat blow-job from Anita Pallenberg, yet he's sorted and wouldn't mind being a librarian. He has owned a dog named Syphilis yet writes affectionately about mum and dad, and shares his recipe for shepherd's pie. He's done sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll big time, and been married for 30 years. It's a great read, even for Beatles fans.

The Velvet Underground (Aurum, £14.99) returns to New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Rob Jonanovich's book examines a band many feel was more influential than the Beatles. Seventies rock is a defining theme of this year's output, which includes Nick Kent's Apathy for the Devil (Faber, £12.99), a series of biographical despatches. Rob Chapman offers a revisionist study of Syd Barrett, delving beneath long-accepted "facts" in A Very Irregular Head (Faber, £14.99). And Shadows Taller Than Our Souls (a line from "Stairway to Heaven") by Charles B Cross is the ultimate volume for any Led Zeppelin fan, slipcased and with gatefold photos and facsimile memorabilia (Aurum, £30).

For the coffee table, three volumes from Mick Rock confirm his position as "the man who shot the Seventies", Debbie Harry and Blondie and Iggy and the Stooges (Palazzo, £14.99 each), and Exposed (Chronicle, £24.95). A lavish portfolio with a foreword by Tom Stoppard, the latter volume covers the spectrum, in colour and in evocative black-and-white. Still with two-tone, People You'd Like to Know (Omnibus, £24.95) is a quieter volume of photo reportage covering folk, blues, jazz and rock by Herb Wise, who learned his craft in New York with the late David Gahr.

Two record labels come under the microscope: Becoming Elektra (Jawbone, £18.95), a lovingly detailed, illustrated history of Jac Holzman's visionary endeavour, and Rough Trade: An Intimate History, "a work of collective remembering" by Neil Taylor (Orion, £14.99). This is another good read that would be improved by an index.

The Penguin Jazz Guide: The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums by Brian Morton and Richard Cook (Penguin, £20), is a fabulous resource, organised by decade from 1920 onwards, rich with pithy commentary and discographical detail. More rarefied is Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway, star of the Cotton Club, written by musician and broadcaster Alyn Shipton (OUP, £18.99).

Mervyn Cooke's The Hollywood Film Music Reader (OUP, £22.50) looks at movie music from the heyday of the silents to today's blockbusters in a book that mixes the serious with the anecdotal. André Previn recalls producer Irving Thalberg's directive that "no music in an MGM film is to contain a minor chord".

It was in Hollywood that Gershwin ended his tragically short life. His score for Shall We Dance exhibits "the stylistic diversity and seemingly effortless mastery" that characterised his later output, writes Larry Starr in George Gershwin (Yale, £30). This concise and approachable survey wears its erudition lightly.

Richard Rodney Bennett: The Complete Musician (Omnibus, £24.95), by Anthony Meredith with Paul Harris, is a biography of a man who, like Gershwin, has written in every genre. Unlike the American composer, he has enjoyed the luxury of time in which to develop, pursuing a multifaceted career. Scrupulously annotated yet chatty in style, it marks Bennett's 75th birthday in March.

Opera-lovers will delight in Living Opera (OUP, £17.99), in which Joshua Rampol interviews a series of practitioners – directors, conductors, singers. Questions are wide-ranging: Pierre Boulez is asked whether 12-tone music lacks "emotional connection", Renée Fleming about balancing the demands of divadom and motherhood.

Of all the arts, music has the greatest potential to move us. In Music and Sentiment (Yale, £16.99), which originating as a lecture series, pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen explains why. The minor mode was for many years considered dissonant – if only Thalberg had but known it!

Finally, another highlight: Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics 1954-1981 by Stephen Sondheim (Virgin, £30), "with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges whines and anecdotes". Sondheim shows how and why songs came into being. "Losing My Mind" is "less an homage to, then a theft of, Gershwin's 'The Man I Love'", while "Send in the Clowns", a series of short breathy phrases, was written to accommodate Glynis Johns's vocal limitations. This is a masterclass between hard covers – always remember, "jokes work best with perfect rhymes".

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