Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie (Bloomsbury, £14.99). At last, an Anglican Father Brown. Runcie has sensibly set his detective stories in the 1950s, before the boring era when DNA and science spoilt the poetry of crime investigation. Canon Chambers, a self-effacing, clever clergyman with a taste for pubs and shove-halfpenny, and an agonised capacity to fall in love with women, is surely a bit as Archbishop Runcie must have been when he came out of the Guards and took orders? Each tale is beautifully crafted and surprising. I hope for many more volumes.
How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow by Harry Mount (Viking/Penguin, £20) is a punctiliously matched piece of topography-cum-history, taking you from Cornish tin mines to the great churches of Suffolk and the Cotswolds, built from wool wealth, to the suburbs of Surrey. It demonstrates that it is no accident that England looks as it does. A book in the great tradition of Ravilious and Betjeman, with a perspective entirely its own, it is a real delight, and contains surprising facts one did not know on every page.
The Baghdad Railway Club by Andrew Martin (Faber, £12.99) made me an addict of the whole series of his Edwardian railway detective. The rather edgy (in the old-fashioned sense) relationship between Stringer (railwayman turned detective) and his left-wing wife adds piquancy to the tales. In this one, Jim Stringer, invalided out of the Western Front, gets involved in a spy mystery and a murder investigation in Mesopotamia. Martin’s unabashed railway enthusiasm is catching, and half the pleasure of the novels is in the details he has at his fingertips. The story of the Baghdad railway is especially fascinating, and this novel has an ingenious plot-twist to do with lip-reading.
The most covetable book of 2012 — and the most desirable Christmas present — is The British as Art Collectors: From the Tudors to the Present by James Stourton and Charles Sebag-Montefiore (Scala, £60). Co-written by the chairman of Sotheby’s and a luminary of English bibliophilia, and based on the latter’s collection of auction catalogues and art books, this is a masterly history of connoisseurship. It combines ravishing images, glorious stories and superlative scholarship to treat aesthetics, power politics, nouveau riche ostentation and hard business. Discriminating readers will never tire of this shrewd and joyous masterwork.
John Martin Robinson’s Felling the Ancient Oaks: How England Lost its Great Country Estates (Aurum, £30) recounts the 20th-century ruination or demolition of great houses, the dispersal of their contents and despoliation of their landscapes. Robinson’s text accompanying the haunting, poignant photographs (mainly from Country Life archives) might have been written by Diaghilev: of balletic lightness and sensibility, yet pugnacious and unforgiving of stupidity and philistinism.
The two best books I’ve come across in 50 years of reading about China were published this year. Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants (Verso, £16.99) is a first-hand account of travelling and interviewing. There are many millions of these people. They have almost no legal rights and produce over 40 per cent of China’s economic ‘miracle’.
Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine by Yang Jisheng (Allen Lane, £30).Yang, one of the bravest men in China, also spent years investigating, this time the world’s worst ever famine, 1958-1962. At a cost of over 40 million deaths, it was provoked, as he shows, by Mao’s lethal convictions.
The non-fiction book that most surprised and delighted me was Sue Prideaux’s glorious Strindberg (Yale, £25). I had no idea what a bizarre and fascinating life the great Swedish playwright (and novelist, historian, poet, painter, alchemist, plus scholar of maps, ladybirds and French toilets) lived. I was very happy to see it on the (corking) shortlist for the Samuel Johnson prize, along with Thomas Penn’s scholarly and engrossing life of Henry VII, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (Penguin, £8.99), which gives a complex and exact sense of how power worked in early modern England.
To any fan of David Foster Wallace, I’d also highly recommend D.T. Max’s exceptionally well told and judicious biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (Granta, £20).
In fiction, Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy (Picador, £7.99) — about a man who finds Anne Frank living in his attic — was fiercely funny. Chris Ware’s moving and indescribably accomplished graphic novel, Building Stories (Cape, £30), sent my jaw south and my eyebrows north.
Richard Ford’s Canada (Bloomsbury, £18.99) is a beautiful examination of what happens when a boy’s life is stripped of all its protective layers. In Inconvenient People (Bodley Head, £20) Sarah Wise investigates case histories of people wrongly incarcerated as lunatics in 19th-century Britain, and uncovers scandals that would send today’s press into a frenzy.
For those who like spy stories with heart, Alan Judd’s Uncommon Enemy (Simon & Schuster, £17.99) brings his Charles Thoroughgood trilogy to a subtle and elegant conclusion.
My most enjoyable wallow in the past this year has been provided by Sheila Kaye Smith, ‘the Hardy of Sussex’, whose intense human dramas, enacted in a primitive rural landscape about to be forever changed, were satirised in Cold Comfort Farm. Try The End of the House of Alard — the title says it all.
The best English novel of the year was Zadie Smith’s boundlessly inventive, fresh and impassioned NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99). She has the best ear in contemporary fiction. Two exceptional American novels were Richard Ford’s breathtaking Canada (Bloomsbury £18.99), its unique shape disconcerting and enchanting the reader equally; and the wonderful Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (Fourth Estate, £18.99), a novel which you didn’t want to end.
The best biography was Jane Ridley’s startling Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (Chatto, £30). Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword (Little, Brown, £25) was a genuinely important book about the origins of Islam.
The most overrated book? Easy — J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown, £20), well-intentioned, but so badly written. Dozens of more enjoyable, accomplished books are published every month.
From the end of the 18th century until it closed in 1859, Vauxhall Gardens were London’s most famous pleasure gardens, offering food, noise, culture and debauchery to anyone who could afford the (modest) entry fee. In Vauxhall Gardens (Yale, £55), David Coke and Alan Borg have chronicled with wit and learning the raucous history of a place central to the social and literary history of Georgian London.
Dillian Gordon’s latest addition to the new series of National Gallery Catalogues, The Italian Paintings before 1400 (£75) is a superb account of one of the world’s greatest collections of early Italian paintings, capable of opening the eyes of even the most practised viewer.
In a totally different genre, the best political biography of the year for my taste is John Bew’s Castlereagh (Quercus, £25), a penetrating account of this supercilious and depressive Anglo-Irish nobleman who directed English foreign policy with consummate skill and intelligence in the final years and immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, making himself the most hated man in England and ending up by killing himself.
I have to admit I’m parti pris in my choice of books. I know and love two of the authors, and the subject of the third was the childhood home of my
sister-in-law. Even if that were not the case, I would still put Rupert Everett’s exquisitely written Vanished Years (Little, Brown, £20) firmly at the top. When being touchingly tender or riotously funny, let alone introspectively right-minded, Everett has surpassed his earlier work.
Hermione Ranfurly was the first charismatic and wickedly earthy grown-up I, aged seven, knew. Her daughter has edited Lady Ranfurly’s later diaries, Hermione: After ‘To War with Whittaker’ with perfect precision (Ranfurly Charitable Services, £12.99).
Luggala Days by Robert O’Byrne (CICO Books, £35) depicts life at that uniquely Irish, romantic, mist-wreathed Gothick house of the Guinness family. This beautifully produced pictorial history shows that during the heyday of its chatelaine, ‘golden girl’ Oonagh Lady Oranmore, and later of her son Garech Browne, the intellectual, the titled, the glamorous and the louche have all gathered here in Luggala-la-land.
The most irritating book, because it should sell like wildfire, is Kelly Hoppen’s Fifty Astonishingly Similar Shades of Taupe.
Jane Ridley’s Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (Chatto & Windus, £30) is a model of how royal biographies should be written. It is impeccably researched, with much new material, balanced, sensible, disrespectful without being offensive, funny, and a vivid portrait of one of Britain’s most underrated and under-studied monarchs.
The catalogue of the British Museum’s exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (British Museum Press, £25) stands by itself as a scholarly and enormously enjoyable portrait of an age and of the world as known to its greatest dramatist. Magnificently illustrated, it does not render a pilgrimage to Bloomsbury superfluous, but is an essential addition to it and, if the worst comes to the worst, a very acceptable substitute.
Antony Beevor’s The Second World War (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20) presents a dilemma. I am objectively prejudiced in its favour because it is a brilliant example of the fiendishly difficult art of global history. But I am subjectively prejudiced in the author’s favour because he wrote a generous comment about my last book. Beyond my obvious bias, it still seems to me that Beevor’s Ariel-like perspective, circling the earth and darting in from high strategy to acts of individual cruelty and courage, has produced what is close to a definitive world view of the conflict, revealing both the impact of such apparently unrelated events as the Japanese rape of Nanking on Stalin’s dealings with Hitler, and the universal stupidity of war itself.
Although I’m besotted with Hilary Mantel’s Thomas and Anne, it’s Russell Banks’s Kid, Iggy and Professor in Lost Memory of Skin (Clerkenwell Press, £12.99) who stand out as characters, primarily because their pornographic, paedophilic, solipsistic adventure beyond the edge of Florida’s infinitely extendable society is not only a compelling story but one that deals with today’s politics rather than yesterday’s.
Finally, I re-read Julian Barnes’s Nothing to be Frightened Of, a book I had foolishly assumed to be part of Richard Dawkins’s atheist evangelism when it came out a few years ago. This year, its moving, sly, terrified grappling with the approach of extinction overwhelmed me with a sense of mortality as powerful as in William Dunbar’s timor mortis conturbat me.
Magnus Mills is one of few writers whose novels I buy and read as soon as they come out. Odd, surreal, rather formal, increasingly abstract, they are also wonderfully funny and surprising, as long as you don’t read the blurb, which inevitably gives at least one ingenious plot-point away for no reason at all.
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (Bloomsbury, £12.99) takes us to the ancient Empire of Greater Fallowfields, a country so delighted in its glorious past that no one notices it is falling apart. Where is the emperor? No one knows. Why are all the people appointed to court posts wholly unqualified for them? Where has all the money gone? In each novel Mills creates a world a little like our own but not quite. He writes mainly about work, and only about men.
There’s an air of creeping menace in some of his books, though not all, and what strikes you in this one is the equanimity with which his characters adapt to relatively appalling new circumstances. I love these books: there’s nothing like them, and they’re not even like each other. Why he isn’t winning all the prizes and selling in millions is, to me, an enduring mystery.
Other novels, old and new, I enjoyed this year included Sybille Bedford’s A Favourite of the Gods (1963), Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (1983), Joanna Briscoe’s Mothers and Other Lovers (1994) and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs (2009).
In Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy (Picador, £7.99), Solomon Kugel moves from New York to the country as a way of escaping Jewish history — only to find the elderly Anne Frank living in his attic. What follows takes the Jewish-American novel to new levels of heretical comedy and fearless brilliance.
On a more respectable note, Thomas Keneally’s The Daughter of Mars (Sceptre, £18.99) — about Australian nurses in the first world war — may be the best novel of his career: a book that aims for, and achieves, real grandeur. Finally, Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat (Union, £12.99) rips into all aspects of foodie culture gleefully, eruditely and, as far as I can see, irrefutably. If there’s any justice, it should put an immediate end to all those incomprehensible menus, absurd claims about the ‘art’ of cooking, and to chips inexplicably served in beakers.
The bitter accusations levelled by Diarmaid MacCulloch at Eamon Duffy for his approach to history in Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition (Bloomsbury, £20), had, I thought, been neatly met in the book’s first pages. But for me this collection of papers on the Reformation was most welcome for restoring the intellectual stature of John Fisher and Reginald Pole, and for filling me with enthusiasm for the great perpendicular church of Salle in Norfolk.
The most helpful piece of scholarship was Noel Malcolm’s translating the Latin version and appendix of Hobbes’s Leviathan in his monumental three-volume edition (Oxford, £195). I still haven’t got over the old devil insisting that God is corporeal. What could he have meant?
The best cover — to which the book lived up — this year used a wood engraving (reproduced below) of a shire horse by C.F. Tunnicliffe for the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, edited by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop (£25). Yet the same publisher also sent out a note this year saying that their volume on the Shroud of
Turin, Thomas de Wesselow’s The Sign (£20), was ‘one of the most important books we have published’. For important read stupid.
Few of us expect to die while on holiday abroad; but we do, often enough. Adam Thorpe’s deftly plotted thriller Flight (Cape, £16.99), is full of bleak aviation humour regarding the business of air-freighting deceased holiday-makers, as well as other more unsettling cargoes.
Bageye at the Wheel (Cape, £16.99), Colin Grant’s salty-sweet memoir of growing up in 1970s Luton, is inflected with the Jamaican patois spoken by his parents, and is a classic of its kind in my opinion.
Michael Jacobs, in The Robber of Memories: A River Journey through Colombia (Granta, £16.99), has produced an utterly beguiling amalgam of travel journalism and family history inspired, in part, by cases of Alzheimer’s disease known to the author (including that of the ailing Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez).
Finally, Kingston Noir (Akashic Books, £9.99), edited by the Jamaican-born novelist Colin Channer, is a collection of gritty new short stories set in the Jamaican capital of Kingston. (I was asked to contribute but, needless to say, that has nothing to do with my recommendation.)
There’s been a fad for publishing ‘biographies’ of entities that are not human beings: everything from longitude to the mosquito, and the format can prove forced. But Robert Shepherd’s Westminster, A Biography: From Earliest Times to the Present (Bloomsbury, £20) chooses a subject with a beating heart. Westminster has developed a most distinct personality since its birth as a swampy Bronze Age island, and Shepherd explains, describes and charts it with great scholarship, of course, but with a smile and a quizzical eyebrow. I love learning how little I knew.
Janan Ganesh’s George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor (Biteback, £20) treads with skill and flair the awkward line between authorised and unauthorised biography. Ganesh, who has an intuitive grasp of the Tory psyche, has obviously had some co-operation from his subject, to whom he is not unsympathetic; but he’s patently his own man, and this is his own book, revealing, penetrating, stylish and superbly written. Honestly, it’s a page-turner. Follow Ganesh, a young columnist who writes for the FT: he’s going to be among the great political essayists of his generation.
To be continued next week
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 November 2012