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Christmas Books II

A further selection of the best and worst books of the year, chosen by our regular contributors

18 November 2009

12:00 AM

18 November 2009

12:00 AM

Ferdinand Mount

Andrew Brown has spent a lot of his life writing about religion, not least for The Spectator. He has never written anything remotely like Fishing in Utopia (Granta, £8.99), but then nor has anyone else. The book tells the story of how the author fell in love with Sweden and everything Swedish, including his first wife, the fishing and the socialism. And when he falls out of love, it is not a straightforward disillusionment, but rather a rueful recognition of how hard it was for a country of dirt-poor farmers to emerge as an industrial nation without losing some of the idealism in the affluence. The descriptions of fishing are as enchanting as anything since Izaak Walton, but in its light and easy style the book is as profound as it is enchanting.

You might not expect a collection of old parliamentary sketches to make a compelling account of an age, but Frank Johnson’s Best Seat in the House (JR Books, £18.99) does, slightly to the surprise even of someone who admired his elegant paradoxes as much as I do. In fact, this cabinet of miniatures, deftly selected and edited by his widow, Virginia Fraser, brings back those not-so-dear dead days more pungently than many a weighty history of the decades in question. Here they are again, the Beast of Bolsover, the Chingford Strangler and all the other characters that Frank invented for the delight of the chattering classes — and he invented them too.

D. J .Taylor

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake would have won the 2003 Man Booker Prize if this judge had had anything to do with it: unfortunately everyone else for some reason plumped unhesitatingly for D.B.C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little. Though perfectly coherent on its own terms, The Year of the Flood (Bloomsbury, £18.99) is a companion piece — set once again in the aftermath of planetary meltdown with a few vagrant survivors struggling watchfully amid the ruins. Dystopian novels, as well as being notoriously difficult to do, are usually grim affairs, but Atwood’s rheumy eye for post- apocalyptic detail is balanced by some genuine humour. I also liked Allan Massie’s thoroughly neurotic Survivors (Vagabond Voices, £10), which features the alcoholically challenged inhabitants of an expats’ bar in Rome, moves on into the realms of violent death and corpse disposal without in any way losing plausibility, and, in the edgy dialogue exchanged between people who don’t really like each other, is wonderfully reminiscent of Francis King’s early novels.

Verse collection of the year was the late Ian Hamilton’s Collected Poems (Faber, £14.99) edited and with a bracing introduction by Alan Jenkins, a poet who, for all his originality, can in some sense claim to be Hamilton’s disciple. Hamilton’s minimalism, his chronic restraint and puritan truncations can sometimes be faintly over- (or under-) whelming, and there are times when the reader cries out for a bit of adjectival luxuriance. At the same time, the thoughtfulness, and the essential warm-heartedness that lies behind them, is always engaging. Rather than drifting vaguely from stanza to stanza, I found myself taking immense care to try and understand exactly what was going on, and of how many modern poetry collections can that be said?

Dan Jones

There were plenty of good war books this year. The best single-volume one was The Storm of War by Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane, £25). The best instalment of a multi-volume one was Divided Houses, the third chunk of Jonathan Sumption’s epic history of the Hundred Years War. It’s worth the decade-long wait between each volume, such is its definitive importance in the field. (Faber, £40).

The Tudors continued to dominate history and historical fiction. Will we ever weary? Not if the quality of research and writing remains as high as that in Leanda de Lisle’s The Sisters Who Would be Queen, a thorough and acute study of the Grey sisters a million miles from the slushy, girly stuff that others produce on Tudor women. (Harper Press, £20).

The most annoying book of the year was Beginners by Raymond Carver (Cape, £16.99) — the ‘restored’ version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Its interest to Carver nerds should be outweighed by the presumption of publishing posthumously a work that is worse than the original, and the implication that Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, overmeddled, rather than showing Carver the path to the essence of his genius.

Philip Hensher

This was a year full of good things. Two substantial episodes in major historical enterprises — David Kynaston’s Family Britain (Bloomsbury, £25) his worm’s eye view of the postwar settlement, marvellously entertaining, and the third volume of Jonathan Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War, Divided Houses (Faber, £40). I don’t see how either project could be done better.

Two first-rate literary biographies, Blake Bailey’s amazing, scandalous and hilarious life of John Cheever (Picador, £25), and one that I’ve been waiting decades for, Nicola Beauman’s The Other Elizabeth Taylor (Persephone, £15). She underrates the wonderful late novels, but this was a labour of love, angrily disowned and rejected, alas, by the writer’s children on the basis of some upsetting personal revelations. (They should read Bailey’s Cheever and count themselves lucky).

The novels I liked best were Roberto Bolano’s gigantic, monolithic 2666 (Picador, £8.99) — I don’t plan ever to read it again, but I’m glad to have read it the once — and Lorrie Moore’s truly distressing A Gate at the Stairs (Faber, £16.99). Written with all her customary wit and verve, it goes into very bleak territory indeed. And A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book is the best thing she’s done since Possession, and quite possibly the best thing she’s ever done (Chatto, £18.99).

Two less classifiable books: Julie Myerson’s The Lost Child (Bloomsbury, £17.99) didn’t get properly read, and sometimes was not read at all by people who nevertheless wrote about it at great length. It was unforgettably truthful; it felt like a book that had to be written, and one that was written with a true sense of duty to its difficult topic.

And with great regret I have to recommend Roger Lewis’s Seasonal Suicide Notes (Short Books, £12.99) — the regret because he is rather rude about me, saying that ‘Philip Hensher is everywhere, like shit in a field.’ I suppose if you are not the target of Lewis’s abuse, you may find it even more amusing than if you are, which is saying something. Simon Gray’s diaries may have found a successor.

Anne Applebaum


Defying the rules for ‘best books of 2009’, I am going to choose as my favourite piece of fiction this year a book which was in fact published in 2008, but which absolutely no one had heard of until 2009. This is Olive Kitteridge (Simon & Schuster, £6.99) by the American author Elizabeth Strout, which was deeply obscure until it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But news spread by word of mouth. Everyone in my family lent it to everyone else in my family and all of us thought it was terrific. It’s a hard to describe collection of interlinked stories which slowly focus in on the character of an extremely difficult woman living in a small town — a woman with whom one finally ends up sympathising, despite all of her faults. It was hardly reviewed at all in the UK. Rush out and demand that your local Waterstones stocks it.

For non-fiction I will choose a more orthodox British book, The Bloody White Baron by James Palm
er (Faber, £18.99), though ‘orthodox’ here is something of a misnomer. Drawing on the legacy of Kipling and Fitzroy Maclean, Palmer tells the bizarre story of a central Asian adventurer, a Russian officer who eventually became the last Khan of Mongolia and convinced himself that he was a Central Asian god. It’s too weird to be true, but it really happened. Palmer tells the story extremely well, brilliantly evoking the bizarre intellectual atmosphere of the late Tsarist empire, the obsessions with Nietzsche and the occult, with theosophy and Spengler. It makes Mongolian history seem more like European history than one would expect — and, surprisingly, helps put Hitler and Stalin into an intellectual context as well.  

Andrew Taylor

William Brodrick’s A Whispered Name (Abacus, £7.99) came out at the end of last year but it won this year’s CWA Gold Dagger for Crime Fiction. Brodrick’s series protagonist, the ex-barrister turned monk, Father Anselm, investigates a first world war court martial, whose story also unfolds through the viewpoints of the court-martialled soldier and of one of the young officers who convicted him. Not your average crime novel: this is a challenging, relentlessly intelligent exploration of the horrors of war, of suffering and heroism, and of what it means to have a conscience.

Declan Hughes’s All the Dead Voices (John Murray, £16.99) is an exuberantly written slice of Dublin noir: a Chandleresque private eye novel set in modern Ireland that keeps within the conventions of the genre but reinvigorates them.

Laura Wilson’s An Empty Death (Orion, £18.99) is not just a many-layered whodunnit but also offers a precise and almost painfully vivid evocation of war-weary, battered London in 1944.

Royal Mistresses and Bastards by Anthony Camp (available from the Society of Genealogists, 0207 702 5483, sales@sog.org.uk, £30, ISBN 9780950330822). The mistresses and illegitimate children of kings are the subject of so much scurrilous rumour that it is often impossible to disentangle fact from fiction. Camp is a distinguished genealogist who has researched the claim of every alleged mistress or bastard from 1714 until Edward VIII. Each mistress is given a full pedigree, and every alleged illegitimate child is tested against the evidence. The result is definitive. Edward VII, for example, was not known as Edward the Caresser for nothing. He had over 50 mistresses, and most of them stand up to Camp’s analysis, but the book shows that, in spite of claims of paternity, he produced remarkably few illegitimate children. Never before has the bed-hopping of monarchs been subjected to such scholarly scrutiny. Indispensable.

Caroline Moorehead

Hilary Mantel’s dazzling novel about the scheming Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, a man more often viewed as sinister but here turned into a suprisingly appealing hero, was certainly the book I most enjoyed this year (Fourth Estate, £18.99). For those who need to be persuaded of the nastiness of modern warfare, Peter Hennessey’s The Junior Officers’ Reading Club (Penguin, £16.99) is an engaging mixture of war reporting, stream of consciousness and reflections on the nature of conflict in the 21st century. And no lover of thrillers can have failed to be gripped by Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, published by the Maclehose Press, about a troubled and odd young woman adrift in a Sweden that turns out to be violent, callous and corrupt.

Charlotte Moore

Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, a novel about German resistance to Nazism reissued this year by Penguin (£20), has lost none of its moral and narrative power in the 62 years since it first appeared. I didn’t find any new novels as moving or compelling. The classic I revisited with most pleasure was Thackeray’s The Newcomes, a capacious and good-hearted ramble through early 19th-century London society. I enjoyed discovering Augustus Hare’s The Years With Mother; the doom-laden title is misleading, for this Victorian memoir is packed with bizarrely unpleasant people and dramatic and improbable incidents.

Most disappointing novel : Ann Michaels’ gratingly portentous The Winter Vault (Bloomsbury, £16.99).

Susan Hill

Love and Summer by William Trevor (Viking, £18.99). A masterpiece from a master, revealing more at each reading. Quite beautiful. Also quite beautifully overpriced for such a slim volume, but he is worth any money. Any.

Alan Clark: The Biography by Ion Trewin (Orion, £25). Loving but not partial biography of a contrary, intriguing, sexy, oversexed, cruel, funny and surprisingly vulnerable man. I didn’t think there was more of interest to be said after Clark’s own diaries, but Trewin has said that interesting more.

The Real Global Warming Disaster: Is the Obsession with ‘Climate Change’ Turning out to be the Most Costly Scientific Blunder in History? (Continuum, 16.99) What it says on the tin by our bravest journalist, Christopher Booker.

Lloyd Evans

The best way to get good quality books is to steal what others are reading and see if they complain. I nicked Zoe Heller’s The Believers (Penguin, £16.99) this summer. The reader didn’t object, assuring me it was cold and tedious. It was hilarious. An affectionate satire set in New York, the novel follows the family of a famous liberal lawyer as they try to escape the spirit of his values. It’s an ingenious comic ghost story about exorcising the spectre of communism.

I was given The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Penguin, £7.99) last Christmas. After the cumbersome opening scene, joy upon joy unfolds. Every reader recalls the particular moment when the book ensnared their devotion. Mine was the hapless cop hailed by a neighbour as he knocks on a door. ‘Patrolman Mancuso,’ he nods solemnly. ‘Undercover.’

I haven’t read Redeeming Features (Cape, £25) by Nicky Haslam, only the serialisation and a couple of reviews. Haslam is a party animal with a poet’s eye for detail. He describes the Duke of Windsor, refusing to stand as other theatre-goers push past him, with the phrase, ‘sitting like a cross little parcel’. I’ll ask Santa for this and hope others don’t nick it.

Deborah Ross

I was totally entranced by William Trevor’s novel Love and Summer (Viking; £18.99) which is hardly a surprise, as I worship the ground Trevor walks on and, should he ever skip, I’ll worship the ground he skips on. A sort of non-love story in which the past devours the present, it is written with such magnificent, restrained despair you can forgive it for not having any laughs in it, which there aren’t. I enjoyed The Philosopher and the Wolf (Granta, £8.99) but probably only because I’m besotted with dogs. Here, Mark Rowlands recounts his 11-year relationship with a wolf, who lived with him as a dog might, and although Rowlands digresses with varying success, and isn’t that empathetic, it’s the best thing I’ve ever read about the whole man-canine bond thing. My biggest failure? A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book (Chatto, £18.99). I’ve read all her other books but just couldn’t be doing with this one and gave up part way though. Perhaps there is only so much one can read about clever, bohemian parents who have clever, precocious children, and I simply feel I’ve done my stint over the years. Also, there aren’t really any dogs in it.

Two doorsteps, I’m afraid, this year: The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littel (Chatto, £20) was published by Gallimard in 2006, so it is by no stretch of the imagination this year’s publication. However, it is a book with a touch of genius and it is difficult to quarrel
with the Goncourt judges in their decision. It is, nevertheless, utterly horrific, perhaps not so much because of the account of Stalingrad, but for the description of the normality of the administrative grind that drove the endlösung. Strong stomachs are needed for this one and stamina for nearly 1,500 pages.

Volume III of Jonathan Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War (Divided Houses, Faber, £40) is the next instalment of an undertaking at least as great as those of the 19th- century Stakhanovite historians. Sumption clearly knows every step of the ground, organises his narrative in masterly fashion and stimulates and sustains the reader’s interest for over 1,000 pages. I can’t wait for Volume IV.

Raymond Carr

I have been impressed by Jonathan Sachs’ Future Tense (Hodder, £16.99). As Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation he gives non-Jews, like myself, an understanding of Judaism over the last 4,000 years of its history. Persecution and the rise of a new violent brand of anti-Semitism, he maintains, has turned some Jews into considering themselves as a people apart. Isolation invites danger. ‘We must stand together with other faith communities’. It must be confessed, however, that Sachs’ universalism is full of unresolved contradictions.

Jimmy Burns’ lively biography of his father Tom Burns, Papa Spy (Bloomsbury, £18.99) is more than an act of filial piety. For Tom Burns, a product of Stoneyhurst, his Catholicism determined his politics. During the Spanish Civil War he supported Franco; in the subsequent world war, as press attaché in Madrid, he used his Catholic friends in Spain to keep Franco out of the clutches of the Nazis. He made many enemies on the Left. It is to his credit that Kim Philby, long a Soviet agent, moved heaven and earth to get him dismissed. His son has the journalist’s eye for good copy. The actor Leslie Howard, brought by the British Council to Portugal and Spain to boost British prestige, disappears as his plane vanishes on his return flight. The murky world of intelligence, counter-intelligence, deception and double agents, provide a series of real James Bonds.

Piers Paul Read’s Death of a Pope (Ignatius Press, £14.35) is a theological thriller that reveals the inner workings of the Vatican. It is so skilfully constructed that it makes compulsive reading from its first words to its dramatic conclusion.

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, £18.99) is an acclaimed historical novel based on extensive researches into Tudor history. Novels are legitimate sources when describing the intellectual and social currents of the time in which they were written. Historical novels, as such, fall between two stools, blurring the distinction between history as a discipline and fiction. This is the case with Mantel.

Paul Johnson

Anyone interested in the Lake District and Edward Lear should buy the catalogue of the exhibition Edward Lear the Landscape Artist: Tours of Ireland and the English Lakes, held at the Wordsworth Centre in Grasmere earlier this year. It brings together a large number of beautiful Lake District drawings Lear made in the years 1835 and 1836, most of them never exhibited before. The exhibition included some superb drawings of trees which Lear did at Alderley Park, Cheshire, in the same period. The catalogue, by Charles Nugent, is full of new information about Lear’s early life, and includes some fascinating unpublished letters by him (obtainable from the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, Cumbria; www.wordsworth.org.uk, £19.95).

I also recommend Fallen Eagle: How the Royal Navy Captured Napoleon by Norman MacKenzie. This admirable little monograph describes Napoleon’s attempts to get to America after Waterloo, and his passage to English waters on board HMS Bellerophon. It gives intriguing new details about Napoleon in defeat, and the naval customs of the time, including its performances of amateur theatricals, which the Emperor much enjoyed. To get the work, which costs £17.99, contact the Lewes Book Centre, 38 Cliffe High Street, Lewes, BN7 2AN (tel. 01273 487053; www.lewesbookcentre.co.uk).

Roger Lewis

As a child of those tank-top times, I have enjoyed two books about the Seventies: Crisis? What Crisis? by Alwyn Turner (Aurum, £8.99) and Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed (Fourth Estate, £18.99 ). Wheen’s portrait of Nixon has a Shakespearean richness — why doesn’t he now write a full-scale, scabrous biography of Tricky Dicky? Of the year’s many autobiographies, the best by far was Byron Rogers’ eccentric, melancholy Me (Aurum, £16.99). Byron almost makes me proud to be Welsh, which is saying something.


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