Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Profile Books, RRP£25
This is a bold, ambitious, fascinating book. Its authors argue that “countries differ in their economic success because of their different institutions, the rules influencing how the economy works, and the incentives that motivate people”. The thesis is persuasive: institutions do indeed matter. But the book ignores other things that matter, such as a country’s location and its resources.
Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich, by Chrystia Freeland, Allen Lane, RRP£25
Soaring inequality is transforming the world economically, socially and politically. In this outstanding book, Freeland, a former US managing editor for the FT, explores how and why the new plutocracy is emerging. She points to the risk of creating a hereditary elite whose members are increasingly detached from their fellow citizens.
Misunderstanding Financial Crises: Why We Don’t See Them Coming, by Gary Gorton, Oxford University Press USA, RRP£19.99
In this important book, the Yale School of Management professor explains that crises are inherent consequences of a capitalist financial system. Economists should never have believed, as nearly all did, that a systemic crisis could not happen in the US or other advanced high-income countries. It both could and did. Those who ignored history were condemned to repeat it.
Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy: Markets, Speculation and the State, by William Janeway, Cambridge University Press, RRP£22
Janeway, who built the technology investment team of Warburg Pincus, has a powerful message: an innovative economy “begins with discovery and culminates in speculation”. Unfashionably, he insists that the state plays a central role in the innovative economy, as a source of funding for infrastructure and research and as a guarantor of stability when financial speculation ends in disaster, as it tends to do.
End this Depression Now!, by Paul Krugman, WW Norton, RRP£14.99
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, is the most influential economics columnist in the US. In this brilliant book, he criticises the feeble response of governments and central banks to mass unemployment and argues for a Keynesian response: a demand-side malaise needs a powerful demand-side response.
Economics After the Crisis: Objectives and Means, by Adair Turner, MIT Press, RRP£17.95
The chairman of the Financial Services Authority is the UK’s foremost public policy intellectual-cum-practitioner. Here he assesses the value of economic growth and the costs of inequality, analyses the failings of the financial sector, and argues that, in rich countries, markets are most important for their contribution to freedom.
FT chief economics commentator
Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, by Chris Anderson, Random House Business, RRP£20
Anderson brings evangelical zeal to the story of how ever-cheaper 3D printing is shaking up the world of manufacturing. He weaves his own attempts to build working models and whole businesses with themes familiar from his previous books The Long Tail and Free, which extolled the virtues of cheap digital distribution and open-sourcing.
How Will You Measure Your Life? Finding Fulfilment Using Lessons from Some of the World’s Greatest Businesses, by Clayton Christensen, James Allworth and Karen Dillon, HarperCollins, RRP£9.99
One of Harvard Business School’s best-known management academics, Christensen traditionally ends his course by helping his students examine their lives and careers. Here he distils those lessons into a guide about how not to become “the kind of person you never wanted to be”.
Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll, Allen Lane, RRP£25
Coll’s “biography” of one of the most successful US multinationals won the 2012 FT Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award. Its in-depth account of how Exxon exerts its influence is full of telling detail, from the chief executive’s “God Pod” at its Texan headquarters to the politically toxic oil fields of Equatorial Guinea.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change, by Charles Duhigg, William Heinemann, RRP£12.99
Self-help books that actually do help are rare but Duhigg successfully synthesises and refines the latest research on the habits of people, societies and companies to produce a useful guide to how people acquire habits – and how they can kick them.
Octopus: The Secret Market and the World’s Wildest Con, by Guy Lawson, Oneworld, RRP£12.99
The cataclysm of the financial crisis dwarfs the extraordinary tale of Sam Israel and the rise and improbably lurid fall of his hedge fund Bayou Capital in 2008. But Lawson rescues the story and tracks Israel from the old 1980s Wall Street to the stranger, more dangerous place where the paranoid Israel, having conned clients about his fund returns, was eventually conned himself.
Standing on the Sun: How the Explosion of Capitalism Abroad Will Change Business Everywhere, by Christopher Meyer with Julia Kirby, Harvard Business Review Press, RRP£21.99
Adopting a broader perspective than most business authors, Meyer and Kirby argue persuasively that new types of businesses – hybrids, non-profits, networked enterprises and fast-growing emerging market newcomers – are ushering in a different, possibly better, capitalism.
FT management editor
Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and its Consequences, by James Buchan, John Murray, RRP£25
A soundly argued account of the causes, course and consequences of the revolution that toppled Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s shah, and replaced him with an Islamic theocracy. Buchan, a Persian scholar and former FT foreign correspondent, puts his first-hand experience of Iran to perceptive use.
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4, by Robert Caro, Bodley Head, RRP£35
Caro’s magnum opus, begun in 1976 and still to encompass most of Johnson’s five years in the White House, is political biography of the highest quality. This volume spans 1958 to 1964, giving an unmatched psychological portrait of Johnson as John F Kennedy’s assassination catapults him into the presidency.
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark, Allen Lane, RRP£30
There will be many books on the first world war as the 100th anniversary draws near, but few as illuminating as this one. Clark, author of Iron Kingdom (2006), an acclaimed history of Prussia, covers every angle but is especially good on the Balkan causes of the war.
Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900-Year-Old Story Retold, by John Guy, Viking, RRP£25
Guy, a leading authority on Tudor England, delivers a vivid account of the life and times of Thomas Becket, the 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury. His reconstruction of the dispute with King Henry II that led to Becket’s murder is masterful and makes for a compelling read.
Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe, Viking, RRP£25
The chaotic interlude between the second world war and Europe’s “cold peace” in the 1950s receives brilliant treatment in Lowe’s scrupulously objective book. He examines ethnic and ideological violence in the Baltic, Poland, Ukraine and Yugoslavia as well as more familiar upheavals in France, Germany and Italy.
Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia, by Donald Rayfield, Reaktion Books, RRP£35
The most comprehensive and up-to-date history of Georgia available in English. This tour de force explains why the small south Caucasus nation looks longingly to the west. A work of consummate erudition from Britain’s foremost expert on Georgian history and literature.
Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, by Dominic Sandbrook, Allen Lane, RRP£30
The fourth volume in Sandbrook’s entertaining history of postwar Britain takes us through the five years of Labour party rule that preceded Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory. It captures perfectly the political stagnation and cultural vibrancy of the period.
The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s, by Richard Wolin, Princeton University Press, RRP£16.95
Wolin gives a fascinating and carefully textured account of the long march to Maoism on which a variety of leftwing French intellectuals embarked in the 1960s. He locates the lurch to extremism in the rapid social and economic modernisation of postwar France.
FT Europe editor
Editor of the Financial Times
After his highly readable Cables From Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles has produced an even better memoir spanning Paris, Washington and the Middle East, via the Hong Kong handover. Ever the Diplomat: Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin (HarperPress) is stuffed with telling anecdotes and insights. The portraits of politicians and some unnamed colleagues are at times withering, but Cowper-Coles, now retired from the FCO, was a diplomat who believed in speaking truth to power. His career may have suffered but the reader is the beneficiary.
Author of ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum’
Benjamin Moser’s new translation of Clarice Lispector’s 1977 novella The Hour of the Star (New Directions) felt to me more urgently original than the other fiction I read this year. The ostensible subject is near-parodic – an emaciated girl in a Rio slum tries to make like Marilyn Monroe. But Lispector was a fierce and singular talent. As her sentences winged from the psychic wages of inequality to the social constructs of happiness and freedom to the violations of storytelling itself, I felt physically jolted by genius.
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, by Anne Applebaum, Allen Lane, RRP£25
Applebaum, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her history of the gulag, turns her attention to the way in which the Soviet Union imposed its rule on eastern Europe in the aftermath of 1945. A timely and compelling history, as the cold war recedes from memory.
Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East, by Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels, Politym, RRP£16.99
The authors challenge the assumption that liberal democracy is always and everywhere the best form of governance – and cautiously suggest that the west can learn a lot from China.
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis, Vintage, RRP£12.99
Davis retells the story of George Mallory’s doomed bid to conquer Everest – and uses it to examine the mentality of a generation scarred by the first world war and the decline of empire. Winner of the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize and described as “magnificent” by the FT.
Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer its Demons to Face the Future, by Bill Emmott, Yale University Press, RRP£18.99
A former editor of The Economist offers an examination of both the weaknesses and the sometimes hidden strengths of modern Italy. The FT called the book “lucid and thoughtful”.
Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden, Mantle, RRP£16.99
Harden sheds light on the horrors of North Korea, with a gripping account of the story of Shin In Geun, the only man known to have escaped from the North Korean gulag – where an estimated 200,000 people are thought to be held in captivity.
Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline, by Edward Luce, Little, Brown, RRP£20
Vivid reportage and iconoclastic analysis by the FT’s chief US commentator. This gloomy take on American decline grounds its analysis in frontline reporting, mixed with deep knowledge of the relevant academic debates.
Governing the World: The History of an Idea, by Mark Mazower, Allen Lane, RRP£25
Mazower examines the repeated attempts to transcend the nation-state as the basic unit of government. An elegant history of an idea and of the statesmen and intellectuals who have promoted it.
FT chief foreign affairs columnist
The Particle at the End of the Universe: The Hunt for the Higgs and the Discovery of a New World, by Sean Carroll, Oneworld, RRP£16.99
An authoritative account of science’s discovery of the year: the Higgs boson. Carroll, a cosmologist, writes with remarkable clarity about the formidable complexities of particle physics and is just as good on the human side of “big science”.
The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk-taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust, by John Coates, Fourth Estate, RRP£20
No one is better qualified to analyse the biology of banking than Coates, a trader turned neuroscientist. As long as human brains control the world of finance, there will be cycles of irrational exuberance and unfounded pessimism, but Coates shows how the wild swings that destabilise banks and the global economy could be calmed by applying biological principles.
Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients, by Ben Goldacre, Fourth Estate, RRP£13.99
The British medical writer and polemicist sinks his teeth into the scientific and business malpractices of the pharmaceutical industry. His analysis of the shortcomings of clinical trials is devastating. The book has many flaws but anyone with an interest in the pharma business should read it.
The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson, WW Norton, RRP£18.99
The father of sociobiology sums up 60 distinguished years of research into evolution and social behaviour. He explains how altruism – which benefits the group but goes against the selfish interests of an individual – has evolved in humans, ants and bees, but in few other animals.
FT science editor
The Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience, by Anon, Bloomsbury, RRP£8.99
The Secret Olympian is an anonymous British athlete who competed in the Athens games of 2004, did not “medal”, but now emerges as an Olympic-calibre writer. This book could be a companion volume to I Am The Secret Footballer (see opposite), revealing all the anxieties and hormones of your average Olympian – it turns out they aren’t superhumans after all.
Pray: Notes on the 2011/2012 Football Season, by Nick Hornby, Penguin Specials ebook, £RRP1.99
This little ebook – not published on paper at all – cannot quite match Fever Pitch, Hornby’s 1992 memoir of a football fan’s life. But then probably nothing else in football writing can. Pray is an amusing, insightful fan’s-eye view of the circus, all the more welcome since Hornby has scarcely mentioned football these past 20 years.
I Am The Secret Footballer: Lifting the Lid on the Beautiful Game, by the Secret Footballer, Guardian Books, RRP£12.99
Perhaps the holy grail of sportswriting is the quest to understand what it’s like “out there”, on the field and in the changing room. Very few athletes have managed to convey it. The “Secret Footballer” – an unnamed Premier League player – does. Part of the fun is guessing who he is.
Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters, by Ed Smith, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99
Smith missed out on what might have been a long England cricket career when an umpire wrongly gave him out for a low score in his third Test match. Combine that with his subtle grasp of history and of sport, and Smith is perfectly placed to write about luck’s role in sport and beyond.
Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, by David Walsh, Simon & Schuster, RRP£18.99
Walsh, a Sunday Times journalist, hounded Armstrong and was hounded by him for years. Walsh wrote that the cyclist was taking drugs to win his Tours de France. Armstrong sued and won a large payout. But with Armstrong’s recent exposure, Walsh is vindicated. This book, to be published on December 13, is the story of Walsh’s long pursuit – or as he says, “my working life”.
Cézanne: A Life, by Alex Danchev, Profile, RRP£30
The most engrossing biography of an artist that I have read for years. With lightness of touch, depth of thought, a vast cultural hinterland and an assured understanding of painting, Danchev marvellously brings to life Cézanne the man, as well as the pioneering artist called “the father of us all” by Picasso.
In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today’s Leading Artists, edited by Simon Grant, Thames & Hudson, RRP£19.95
Ed Ruscha on Millais, Rachel Whiteread on Piero della Francesca, Michael Craig-Martin on Duchamp: 78 living artists reveal and explain one favourite work, often unexpected, in ways that illuminate art old and new and elide their differences. A simple idea elegantly executed in an attractive, compact, well-illustrated volume.
Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, edited by Gloria Groom, Yale University Press, RRP£45
Bourgeois meets bohemian: the sumptuous, irresistible volume accompanying a show currently at the Musée d’Orsay, travelling to New York and Chicago next year, which explores how fashion became integral to the search for fresh literary and visual expression in the Paris of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Zola, Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir.
Matisse: In Search of True Painting, edited by Dorthe Aagesen and Rebecca Rabinow, Yale University Press, RRP£35
One cannot have too many books on Matisse. This is the handsome catalogue to a Metropolitan Museum show, which focuses on how Matisse “pushed further and deeper into true painting” by repeating images in pairs and series to find solutions for portraying light, handling paint and manipulating perspective.
Lucian Freud: Portraits, edited by Sarah Howgate, National Portrait Gallery, RRP£35
Lucian Freud: Drawings, by William Feaver, BlainSouthern, RRP£40
The catalogues to this year’s two landmark Freud shows in London have a fabulous range of paintings and drawings, with texts that are compelling additions to Freud scholarship. They reveal not only an essential episode in art history but also one in postwar social history.
Nude Men: From 1800 to the Present Day, edited by Tobias Natter and Elisabeth Leopold, Hirmer, RRP£39.95
Sexy, image-packed, intelligent and original. No conventional gender studies here – instead a genuine questioning of terms such as masculinity, nudity, the body, in art from the Greeks to Egon Schiele, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gilbert and George, Nan Goldin and scores of others working in diverse media.
David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, Royal Academy RRP£60
The perfect present for anyone who loved or missed Hockney’s spectacular RA exhibition at the start of the year. Lavish, opinionated, authoritative on the recent work, and with intriguing essays by, among others, Margaret Drabble and Martin Gayford
FT chief visual arts critic
A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, Allen Lane, RRP£30
Abbate and Parker wear their academic background lightly, bringing to life the social as well as artistic origins of opera, and casting an unhackneyed perspective on well-known works. Experts and amateurs will find equal illumination, despite the authors’ sketchy 20th-century coverage and gloomy prognosis.
Thomas Adès: Full of Noises Conversations with Tom Service, Faber, RRP£16.99
Adès, the most talented British composer since Britten, doesn’t usually give interviews, but here his opinions tumble out. He dislikes Peter Grimes, dismisses Verdi’s Requiem as kitsch and vents other private hatreds. He may throw little light on his own work but his lack of tact provides its own illumination.
Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year, by Hugh Macdonald, Boydell Press, RRP£25
Wagner reads his libretto for Twilight of the Gods to Liszt in Paris. Liszt receives Brahms in Weimar. Brahms calls on Schumann in Düsseldorf and Schumann goes mad. Musical colossi bump into each other on almost every page of this fly-on-the-wall travelogue, which brings to life their personalities and lifestyle.
Richard Wagner: The Sorcerer of Bayreuth, by Barry Millington, Thames & Hudson, RRP£24.95
This is the plain man’s Wagner – a balanced and beautifully illustrated compendium of life and works, written in Millington’s easy-to-read style.
Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976: Volume 6: 1966-1976, edited by Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke, Boydell Press RRP£45
The sixth volume of Britten’s letters covers the last 10 years of his life, documenting the genesis of the operas Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice, the cantata Phaedra and the Third Cello Suite. Drawing on the composer’s extensive archive, it provides unique insights into his way of working.
FT chief music critic
Kraftwerk: Publikation, by David Buckley, Omnibus Press, RRP£19.95
An unlikely birthplace of modern pop is Düsseldorf in the 1970s, from where Kraftwerk issued their magnificent odes to technology. Buckley does a fine job of penetrating the band’s artful air of mystique, interviewing discarded members and placing their robo-pop in a wider German context of postwar guilt and modernisation.
Trampled Under Foot: The Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin, by Barney Hoskyns, Faber, RRP£20
Hoskyns digs into the music press archives to tell Led Zeppelin’s story, excerpting quotes from interviews and editing them into a portmanteau narrative tracing the band’s ascent to 1970s superstardom.
I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, by Sylvie Simmons, Jonathan Cape, RRP£20
A well-rounded portrait of the poet-singer, who comes across as a depressive sensualist; his dry wit finds an echo in Simmons’s phrase-making (“Leonard turned to lawyers for advice and to women for help”).
Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, by Neil Young, Viking, RRP£25
“I am now the straightest I have ever been since I was 18,” writes a drink and drug-free Neil Young. Fans will be relieved to find that the sobriety doesn’t extend to his memoir, which is as shaggily enjoyable as a Crazy Horse guitar jam. The voice is authentically Young’s, a unique mix of self-indulgence and inspiration.
FT pop critic
Do the Movies Have a Future?, by David Denby, Simon & Schuster, RRP$27
Denby, like his New Yorker colleague Anthony Lane, is a shrewd commentator on contemporary cinema, and this annotated collection of pieces makes a brave stab at assessing the art form’s standing in the cultural hierarchy. It is a complicated story but Denby revels in the postmodern twists.
The James Bond Archives, by Paul Duncan, Taschen, RRP£135
The 50th anniversary of a unique cinematic franchise is lavishly celebrated with numerous treasures from the archives. Interviews, unpublished artwork and storyboards all add up to a hefty and handsome seasonal treat.
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, by Geoff Dyer, Canongate, RRP£16.99
Dyer’s clever and witty tribute to Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinematic masterpiece, is full of wry diversion, not to mention a certain amount of gratuitous smart-arsery. Yet what finally wins over the reader is his properly respectful approach to a film that is elusive in meaning, yet overwhelming in its sense of poetry in (slow) motion.
The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us, by David Thomson, Allen Lane, RRP£25
A consummate film historian and critic, Thomson writes with a warmth that attests to his passion, as well as his knowledge. He is particularly good on the postwar shift “from pioneer innocence to existential disquiet” which marked the maturity of the movies. His analysis of their subsequent decline into sensation-seeking is sobering and crucial reading for any cinephile.
FT arts writer
Grace: A Memoir, by Grace Coddington, Chatto & Windus, RRP£25
The long-awaited autobiography of the Vogue fashion editor-turned-folk hero. This memoir of a life in style from the 1960s until today will be equally absorbing for those who love the fashion world and those who find it impenetrably alien. Either way, as seen through Coddington’s eyes, it is never less than fascinating.
Love Looks Not with the Eyes: Thirteen years with Lee Alexander McQueen, by Anne Deniau, Abrams, RRP£45
This has been a year of Alexander McQueen books – at last count there were at least four of them – but if you are only going to buy one to memorialise the late fashion genius, this photographic record is the pick of the crop. Deniau spent more than a decade snapping McQueen at work, and the resulting photos are full of dedication, originality and emotion.
Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress, by Dominique Gaulme and François Gaulme, Flammarion, RRP£50
From the Greeks to the present, via Napoleon, Louis XVI, Mao and Woodrow Wilson, this analysis of the role clothes have always played in politics is both beautifully illustrated and relevant. You’ll never look at a world leader in quite the same way again.
Tim Walker: Story Teller, by Robin Muir and Tim Walker, Thames & Hudson, RRP£45
A gorgeous coffee-table tome devoted to one of fashion’s newest photographic stars. Eschewing today’s trend toward digitally-altered images, Walker uses real sets to alter perspective and perception. Though the result is often surreal it has a corporeality that makes it immediately affecting. Get it now, before he gets really famous.
FT fashion editor
Investor and entrepreneur
As our parents and grandparents live longer lives, they also contend with diseases and indignities. Many question whether we should want to live longer, to say nothing of for ever. In 100 Plus (Basic Books), Sonia Arrison answers definitively: longer lives and healthier lives are the same goal. The greatest threat to our quality of life in old age comes from complacent acceptance of the inevitability of decay; if you think something will break down anyway, why bother fixing it? Arrison demolishes every argument for fatalism.
Laurent Binet’s HHhH (Harvill Secker, translated by Sam Taylor) is a nail-biting novel, a thorough work of history and, most successfully of all, an exercise in form: a story about the writing of a true story. Binet tells how he became obsessed with one Czech and one Slovak, at the centre of a botched but ultimately successful plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the hangman of Prague, in 1942. The result is a novel in which the Third Reich’s monsters seem freshly monstrous, projected through the quirky prism of this original young French author’s prose.
A History of the World in Twelve Maps, by Jerry Brotton, Allen Lane, RRP£30
This fascinating history of cartography ranges from the 14th-century Hereford mappamundi and the Dutch Atlas Maior of the 17th century to the Google Maps of today. Brotton reveals how, rather than reflecting objective geography, maps were and continue to be subjective, so are a valuable key to understanding their makers.
Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, by Gavin Francis, Chatto & Windus, RRP£16.99
It is 101 years since Ernest Shackleton published The Heart of the Antarctic, but the white continent’s mystery endures, and Francis’s lyrical and enjoyable account of 14 months living at the remote British Halley research station goes some way to explaining why.
The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia, by Michael Jacobs, Granta, RRP£16.99
A chance encounter with Gabriel García Márquez leads Jacobs to set out on a mission to explore the Magdalena river, which runs through the heart of Colombia. It was a key inspiration for García Márquez but was for many years considered too dangerous for tourists – a fact reinforced when Jacobs is temporarily held hostage by Farc guerrillas.
Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales, by Sara Maitland, Granta, RRP£20
Best known for A Book of Silence, Maitland has led trips to the Sinai desert for those eager to appreciate the power of being quiet. In her new book, she travels Britain’s forests, not just to enjoy the hush but also to investigate the cultural link between woodland and fairytales.
The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down, by Andrew McCarthy, The Free Press, RRP£10.99
The star of 1980s “bratpack” movies such as Pretty in Pink and St Elmo’s Fire has reinvented himself as a travel writer. Here he tells the story of that transformation through a series of trips – from the Camino de Santiago in Spain, to Patagonia, Costa Rica, Kilimanjaro and more.
FT travel editor
Scandilicious Baking, by Signe Johansen, Saltyard Books, RRP£25
You could have sold anything in 2012 by sticking the word “Scandinavian” on it but this confident second book by cook and anthropologist Johansen reminds you why. Some of the world’s best baked goods, presented in her now trademark easy style.
The Pressure Cooker Cookbook, by Catherine Phipps, Ebury Press, RRP£18.99
If pressure cooking speaks to you of grannies, boiled-to-death pulses and explosions, Phipps shows you you’re wrong. Recipes you’ll want to cook, yes; but her writing style – precision with an almost retro gentleness – will seduce you completely.
Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Ebury Press, RRP£27
Ottolenghi and Tamimi are the only things hotter than Scandinavia right now. Jerusalem will dominate dinner parties for the next year through its deceptive and inviting simplicity. Also a gorgeous object – my favourite book design of the year.
Shakespeare’s Local: Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub, by Pete Brown, Macmillan, RRP£16.99
Brown is an unashamed beer nerd but by some happy twist of fate he’s also a fascinating and engaging writer. Social history through the story of a single pub, told by a man you’d genuinely want to drink with.
Encyclopedia of Flowering Shrubs, edited by Jim Gardiner, Timber Press, RRP£35
Gardiner is the Royal Horticultural Society’s director of horticulture and certainly knows his plants. The key at the back of the book is a handy reference for colour, growing zone, flowering time, size etc and there are thumbnail descriptions with every photograph.
The Elegant Garden: Architecture and Landscape of the World’s Finest Gardens, by Johann Kraftner, Rizzoli, RRP$60
This is the latest of many round-ups of the world’s most beautiful and most influential gardens. Good stuff, especially on often neglected German, Austrian and Czech landscapes.
Zen Gardens: The Complete Works of Shunmyo Masuno, Japan’s Leading Garden Designer, by Mira Locher, Tuttle Shokai, RRP$39.95
Literacy is not the only skill needed to write a decent book, just as the ability to stick plants in the ground is not the only skill needed to make a decent garden. Zen Gardens gives a glimpse of the knowledge and dedication required to create a Japanese garden. Enthusiastic amateur garden designers should be forced to read it – particularly the description of this Zen Buddhist priest’s work at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa.
Led by the Land: Landscapes, by Kim Wilkie, Frances Lincoln, RRP£35
A thoughtful text, illustrated by plans and evocative photographs, on how our lives shape the land – and vice versa. The author is a master landscaper.
FT House & Home editor
ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN
Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities, edited by Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumoner with photographs by Iwan Baan, Lars Müller Publishers, RRP£38
Torre David in Caracas is a 45-storey bank tower that was abandoned halfway through construction and subsequently squatted. This wonderful exploration of the vertical favela celebrates the ingenuity of the residents who have created an entire city inside, from shops and a gym to a series of endlessly inventive domestic interiors.
In Search of a Forgotten Architect, by Lilly Dubowitz, Architectural Association, RRP£30
Stefan Sebök may have died at 40 but the Hungarian architect crammed in an extraordinary career, studying at the Bauhaus, working for Walter Gropius then moving to the Soviet Union where he worked for some of the great names of constructivism and on the grand proletarian palaces of the Moscow metro. A well-told story spanning the 20th century’s most turbulent and creative decades.
Museum Without Walls, by Jonathan Meades, Unbound, RRP£18.99
Meades loves architecture, which is exactly why he can be so acerbic and so funny about it. In this collection of his writing from crowd-funded publisher Unbound, he suggests that the fabric of our cities is the greatest free entertainment available. From French provincial municipal architecture to the coincidences of Stalinist and Nazi design, Meades is consistently, cuttingly entertaining.
City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, by PD Smith, Bloomsbury, RRP£25
The city is a big subject but this is readable, concise and extremely entertaining. Smith spans the emergence of the first Middle Eastern cities – places with no streets, so inhabitants needed to walk on roofs and descend ladders to reach their homes – up to informal settlements and high-tech hubs today. Well-researched, well-written and clear.
Ezra Stoller, Photographer, by Nina Rappaport and Erica Stoller, Yale University Press, RRP£45
Stoller was the photographer of US mid-century modernism, his pictures proselytising the US lifestyle to a sad, grey Europe. This book blends some of those super-cool images with photos of factories and aeroplanes, malls and world fairs, the postwar US world of plenty presaging the epic images of Andreas Gursky.
FT architecture critic
Investor, president of the Berggruen Institute on Governance and co-author of ‘Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century’
Odd Arne Westad’s Restless Empire (Bodley Head) is a landmark account of how China has handled its foreign relations over the past 250 years. Many Chinese and non-Chinese alike see China as essentially reactive: an inward-looking Middle Kingdom. But the nation now has its first aircraft carrier and many expect it to play an ever greater international role. It has become critical to take a long view of China’s foreign relations, in order to see what is lasting, and what is subject to change. Westad brilliantly meets the challenge in this timely book.
Author of ‘Drifting House’
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber) plumbs the world of substance addiction with a feverish imaginative power. Written with a poet’s eye for economy, its generous and unflinching vision drifts between dream, nightmare, and the sprawling real world of Mumbai that the characters struggle to inhabit. This journey is also a narrative of language and ideas, but what makes Narcopolis a truly great book is its compassion and hard-earned wisdom.
Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99
Bechdel is an American graphic novelist whose first book, Fun Home (2006), took on the author’s relationship with her father, a closeted gay man who committed suicide, and her own coming out as gay while in college. The sequel, a comic memoir focusing on her mother, is a charming and visually glorious examination of love, family and the psychoanalytic theory of Donald Winnicott.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum, by Katherine Boo, Portobello Books, RRP£14.99
Praised as “an interview-based narrative in which the interviewer never appears” by the National Book Award judges, Boo’s account of the residents of Annawadi, a slum in the shadow of luxury hotels near Mumbai airport, introduces the reader to garbage recyclers, construction workers, thieves and politicians as they struggle to find a place in India’s booming economy.
Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Books, RRP£10.99
Hitchens, who died last December after a long battle with cancer, wrote up to the last; this compilation of columns, introduced by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and with a devastating afterword by Hitchens’ wife Carol Blue, is an unflinching, riveting document of illness and its effects on the body and beliefs of one of the great contrarians.
A Death in the Family: My Struggle: Volume One, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett, Harvill Secker, RRP£17.99
This 3,600-page, hardly-fictionalised autobiography with a deliberately Hitlerian title provoked controversy in Norway for its openness about the author’s family, and was described by Knausgaard as “an act of literary suicide”. The first volume, dealing with the death of the author’s father, is striking for its lack of plot and its microscopic detail of even the most mundane aspects of life – but is also bizarrely powerful.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by DT Max, Granta, RRP£20
The first biography of the author of Infinite Jest (1996), who committed suicide in 2008, follows Wallace from his childhood in the 1970s Midwest to his starry student years at Amherst College, through bouts of depression, hospital rehabs, electroconvulsive treatments and periods of extraordinary creativity. A compelling, empathetic account.
Country Girl, by Edna O’Brien, Faber, RRP£20
The Irish author of The Country Girls looks back on a spectacular life, from her childhood in Tuamgraney, County Clare; her turbulent marriage to Ernest Gébler; and decades of parties in London and New York, to the melancholy comforts of older age. O’Brien’s prose is poetic but she doesn’t go in for excessive introspection; this memoir is a romp.
As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964-1980, by Susan Sontag, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£18.99
The second of three instalments of Sontag’s notebooks, edited by her son David Rieff and covering the period when she wrote most of her fiction and essays, reveals the writer to be a prodigious intellect and a deeply unhappy woman. These diaries, which include musings on 1960s “happenings”, Chinese politics and her dislike of her own body, render her more vulnerable than ever, but more impressive too.
The Yips, by Nicola Barker, Fourth Estate, RRP£18.99
A crass golf pro, in free-fall thanks to the ailment of Barker’s title, sits at the centre of a swirl of agoraphobic tattooists, enlightened Muslim sex gurus and parochial fascists. Barker is a most peculiar writer. This is a good thing. Her dementedly imaginative mind paints modern Britain as a grotesque carnival.
Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99
Barker, who made the first world war her domain with the Regeneration trilogy, returns to it here. Art school student Elinor seeks out the fate of her brother, who is missing in the war. She ends up in the wards of a pioneering plastic surgeon treating disfigured soldiers who, in turn, are all searching for their own faces.
San Miguel, by TC Boyle, Bloomsbury, RRP£14.99
One of the most inventive and adventurous writers in the US today, Boyle charts the history of two families as they struggle to survive, escape and eventually embrace the Californian island of his title.
This is How you Lose Her, by Junot Díaz, Faber, RRP£12.99
Díaz’s impressive collection of short stories charts the end of love from first doubts, through the dreamlike state of splitting up, to the regret and suffering that follows. Centred around his frequent protagonist, Yunior, Díaz’s stories portray love as both an all-encompassing force and a fatally compromised state.
A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Books, RRP$25
In this timely look at the decline of American manufacturing, Eggers tells the absurdist story of a struggling businessman attempting to implement an IT project in Saudi Arabia. But is it all a mirage? If the world is facing a fiscal cliff are we like lemmings about to leap off?
The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng, Myrmidon Books, RRP£12.99
Malaya is the backdrop for this beautiful, affecting novel in which Yun Ling, a retired judge, returns in old age to the country estate where she once came to recuperate after escaping a Japanese prisoner of war camp. She recalls her relationship with the enigmatic Aritomo – once the emperor’s gardener – to whom she became apprenticed in a bid to create a perfect Japanese garden.
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£7.99
One of the most popular thrillers of the year is also one of the smartest. A seemingly happy marriage is destroyed when the stunning, smart wife goes missing on the day of her wedding anniversary. It’s any caring husband’s nightmare – or is it? Flynn’s book cleverly outpaces its neo-noir trappings and consistently surprises the reader.
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, Doubleday, RRP£18.99
Can a whole country be mad? In this hilarious and horrifying book, Johnson skilfully conjures up the peculiarities of life in North Korea through a novel that contrasts the manipulative absurdities that issue forth from the nation’s rulers with the real experience of its citizens.
Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver, Faber, RRP£18.99
Dellarobia’s life on a failing sheep farm in the rural US is wretched until she discovers a flame-like swarm of butterflies. News of her find soon spreads across the country, drawing in the religious and the scientific-minded alike. Kingsolver presents her characters fluttering in restless isolation, fuelled by endlessly deferred desires.
Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy, And Other Stories/Faber, RRP£7.99
A middle-class family’s summer retreat in the south of France is ripped apart when a young waif, Kitty, appears in their pool. Her seductive menace fractures their lives and sends them spinning down a chaotic spiral of madness. Levy’s first novel in 15 years is a hair-raiser, short, simple and devastating.
Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, Fourth Estate, RRP£20
The winner of Mantel’s second Man Booker Prize, this sequel to the astonishing Wolf Hall deepens Thomas Cromwell’s cold-blooded yet charismatic character. Daubed in rich narrative colours, this is a great novel of dark and dirty passions, both public and private. We feel lucky to be led through it beneath Cromwell’s black wing.
Flame Alphabet, by Ben Marcus, Granta, RRP£16.99
Does it sometimes seem as if your child is speaking a different language? Marcus’s brilliant and disorientating book takes this idea a step further and paints a parallel world in which children’s language actually sickens their parents. This conceit is as neat a metaphor for the parent/child relationship as one could hope for.
The Heart Broke In, by James Meek, Canongate, RRP£17.99
Meek creates a compelling and wonderfully sharp family saga situated in the contemporary bohemian hinterlands of London. Sibling rails against sibling, idealism battles materialism, religion strives against humanism, and the rigours of science go up against the inanities and seductive lies of popular culture.
Dear Life, by Alice Munro, Chatto & Windus, RRP£18.99
One of the world’s greatest living writers releases a collection of stories at the height of her powers. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here, no showy plots, just lyrical sentences that build imperceptibly to gut-wrenching endings. Blackmailed lovers, childhood tragedies, all human frailty is depicted with exquisite, pinpoint detail.
Umbrella, by Will Self, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99
Ambitiously conceived and brilliantly executed, this novel is in the high modernist tradition but updated for an era of circuit boards and microprocessors. Audrey Death has been in a catatonic state for 50 years. Zachary Busner is the psychiatrist who attempts to revive her. Time slips, perspectives shift and the book’s wormhole dance is dazzling.
The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker, Simon & Schuster, RRP£14.99
Coming of age can often seem like the end of the world. In Walker’s sparse and compelling debut novel, the two are one and the same. An 11-year-old girl recounts the vagaries of tween life in a near-future when the earth’s rotation has started to slow. The book shakes with environmental devastation and hormonal earthquakes.
The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín, Viking, RRP£12.99
Just in time for Christmas comes Tóibín’s take on the most famous mother in history. Jesus is gone but Mary is still on earth, harassed by evangelists who want to make her life a story. She is a sceptic: miracles were in her view fearful events, while her son was frightening and distant. This Mary is all too believable.
Merivel: A Man of His Time, by Rose Tremain, Chatto & Windus, RRP£18.99
This sequel to Tremain’s 1989 Booker-nominated novel Restoration sees the rakish physician Robert Merivel return. However, the spirit of youth has been worn down and neither Merivel nor his monarch, the once riotous Charles II, are as merry as once they were. This is a book about forcing jollity in the face of the transience of life.
Building Stories, by Chris Ware, Jonathan Cape, RRP£30
Ware’s book in a box contains 14 separate graphic novels that can be read in any order to tell the tale of an apartment block in Chicago and the interlocking stories of its tenants. A thing of beauty – and a great gift.
FICTION IN TRANSLATION
Me and You, by Niccolò Ammaniti, translated by Kylee Doust, Canongate, RRP£10
A tender coming-of-age novella that tells the story of 14-year-old Lorenzo Cuni, who escapes into his family’s cellar for a week, only to find his planned solitude disturbed by the arrival of his estranged sister. The Italian author’s restrained meditation on isolation and empathy is both poignant and uplifting.
Spilt Milk, by Chico Buarque, translated by Alison Entrekin, Atlantic, RRP£12.99
With this novel, a riches-to-rags story told by an ailing centenarian in modern-day Rio de Janeiro, one of Brazil’s most widely admired singer-songwriters has confirmed his place among the country’s most outstanding contemporary writers. Eulálio Assumpção is the unreliable narrator telling his unforgettable tale of jealousy, loss and decay.
Where I Left My Soul, by Jérôme Ferrari, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, MacLehose Press, RRP£12
Set over three days in 1957 during the Algerian war, Ferrari’s award-winning book is a devastating study of the effect of systematic torture on both victims and perpetrators. Though firmly rooted in the savagery of the Algerian struggle for independence, the novel has modern echoes that make it uncomfortable and illuminating.
The Hunger Angel: A Novel, by Herta Müller, translated by Philip Boehm, Portobello Books, RRP£14.99
In this haunting and lyrical novel by 2009’s Nobel laureate, the 17-year-old Romanian protagonist, Leo Auberg, is sent to a Soviet concentration camp following the second world war. Müller, a German-speaking Romanian, distils the hopelessness of captivity into poetic prose, and examines the challenges faced by those lucky enough to survive.
Traveller of the Century, by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Pushkin Press, RRP£12.99
Argentine Andrés Neuman was listed among Granta magazine’s Best of Young Spanish-language Novelists in 2010. His first novel to be translated into English is a thought-provoking historical romance, in which sex and philosophy mingle to delightful effect when a young 19th-century traveller arrives at the fictional German town of Wandernburg.
Silent House, by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Robert Finn, Faber & Faber, RRP£18.99
Finally translated into English almost three decades after it was first published in Turkey, the Nobel laureate’s second novel shows him already grappling with a central theme of his later work: the seemingly unsolvable tensions between the country’s secularists, nationalists and Islamists. An eerily prescient work of fiction.
Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China, edited by Liu Deng, Carol Yinghua Lu and Ra Page, translated by Eric Abrahamsen, Nicky Harman, Julia Lovell and others, Comma Press, RRP£9.99
An anthology of short stories that engage obliquely with themes such as migration, prosperity and gender relationships offers refreshing glimpses into life in modern Chinese cities. With settings ranging from Beijing and Hong Kong to the icy Harbin, it includes works by newcomers as well as established authors such as Han Dong.
Ángel Gurría Quintana
Between Two Windows, by Oli Hazzard, Carcanet, RRP£9.95
A clear, bright voice that can turn to dazzling obfuscation and darkness in this debut collection from a young poet. Personal, genuine and rigorously thought through, for all its dreamlike detail.
Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, by Clive James, Picador, RRP£14.99
Frailty brings an infuriating lucidity (what to do with it?) for the poet in this funny work. Long-ago decades make their presence felt in unexpected memories, wittily rendered.
Out There, by Jamie McKendrick, Faber, RRP£9.99
Examining human wonder through its limits and the muddles of comprehension, McKendrick delivers a true delight. A preoccupation with flooding (rain, wet valleys, burst rivers) hints at this theme of intellectual containment, and suggests nature’s opposing freedom.
Collected Poems, by Sean O’Brien, Picador, RRP£20
From the surety of his first collection The Indoor Park (1983), O’Brien sustains a 30-year career in verse, with a near-icy hand for precise expression. Includes his accessible fragments of Dante’s Inferno.
The Right Hand, by Derek Haas, Mulholland, RRP£13.99
Loner Austin Clay tackles unthinkable assignments for the government. When he tracks a CIA operative who has vanished in Russia, he swiftly finds himself getting out of his depth. Clay could do with anger-management classes but his fiery personality makes this a one-session rocket of a thriller.
The Rage, by Gene Kerrigan, Vintage, RRP£7.99
Naylor is a professional thief barely out of jail when he plots his next heist. But as a former nun grows suspicious of vehicle activity in her Dublin backstreet, his plans start to unravel. A gritty, double-plotted procedural set against Ireland’s banking crisis.
Witch Hunt, by Syd Moore, Avon RRP£6.99
Sadie is researching the Essex witch hunts when she comes to believe someone is stalking her. Could it just be her overworked imagination? The horrors of the past witch trials are balanced against disturbances in the present in a richly atmospheric tale. Indebted to MR James, but Moore’s account is entirely fresh and modern.
The English Monster, by Lloyd Shepherd, Simon & Schuster, RRP£7.99
In London’s East End in 1811, two households were slaughtered. Shepherd takes a brave leap of imagination that may infuriate crime purists but his purpose is to illuminate a dark chapter in Britain’s past. The result is a gripping, original read.
Flight, by Adam Thorpe, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99
Bob is a “freight dog”, a flying trucker pilot running whatever clients want, but he draws the line at switching medical supplies for AK-47s. Soon he’s pursued by killers as the past catches up with him. All the lingo and lore of flying is here, along with the requisite stunts that keep the plot soaring.
Crime & Guilt, by Ferdinand von Schirach, Vintage, RRP£8.99
My book of the year: a dazzling double-bill exploring unusual criminal cases where the guilty share one thing in common: none of them were ever convicted, for reasons the author goes on to explain, often in hypnotic, heartbreaking prose.
The Notting Hill Mystery: The First Detective Novel, by Charles Warren Adams, British Library, RRP£8.99
Here’s a reprinted gem; the world’s first detective novel, published in instalments in 1862-1863 and presented in the form of diary entries, reports and letters. Its hero is an insurance investigator building a case against a sinister baron, and the case incorporates kidnapping, acid poisoning, murder, a mesmerist and, of course, a rich uncle’s will.
SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY
Juggernaut, by Adam Baker, Hodder & Stoughton, RRP£6.99
In a year crowded with zombie fiction, Baker’s second novel stands out. It’s a technothriller set in the Iraqi desert, pitting a ragtag group of mercenaries against an outbreak of the walking dead, who have been reanimated by a virus from space. Gory, bullet-riddled and compulsive.
Empire State, by Adam Christopher, Angry Robot, RRP£7.99
Rad Bradley, a down-at-heel gumshoe in a parallel-universe New York, hunts for a missing dame and stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens the entire world. Verve and imagination abound in this accomplished debut.
Hide Me Among the Graves, by Tim Powers, Corvus, RRP£14.99
The sequel to Powers’ 1989 novel The Stress Of Her Regard offers the unlikely pairing of pre-Raphaelites and vampires. The narrative is as morbid and florid as the work of the poets it celebrates.
2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit, RRP£18.99
A work of polymathic brilliance, and a marked return to form, from the author of the Mars trilogy. Three centuries from now, humankind has colonised the solar system. The novel is virtually a manual for how we might achieve that and a guidebook to a potential utopia.
Ecko Rising, by Danie Ware, Titan, RRP£7.99
The sci-fi debut of the year begins like a cyberpunk thriller, before performing a sharp U-turn to become a rollicking high-fantasy adventure. Ware writes fearlessly and with great self-assurance, and her hero Ecko, cybernetically augmented but as crude and cynical as they come, is a magnificent creation.
How To Seize a Dragon’s Jewel, by Cressida Cowell, Hodder, RRP£5.99
The 10th outing for Viking dragon tamer Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third deepens the atmosphere of doom that has gathered over this series. The dragon rebellion is under way, Hiccup’s friend and allies are in captivity, the situation looks bleak. Cowell’s loopy, scattershot imagination is as compelling as ever.
A Little, Aloud, For Children, edited by Angela Macmillan, David Fickling Books, RRP£9.99
A judicious selection of excerpts from old and modern literature, each brief enough to be read aloud in less than 20 minutes. Famous authors rub shoulders with the lesser-known in a book intended to foster a love of reading.
Gods And Warriors, by Michelle Paver, Puffin RRP£12.99
Pre-classical Greece. An outcast boy is marooned on a remote Mediterranean remote island with a high priestess’s daughter who has fled from a forced marriage. The two find common ground and a common enemy in a novel filled with the animist spirituality and raw brutality of a lost age.
Grimm Tales, by Philip Pullman, Penguin, RRP£20
The His Dark Materials author retells 50 of the Grimm brothers’ stories, some familiar, others not. All are infused with the beguiling, dreamlike logic of fairy tales and presented with beautiful simplicity and clarity. Bewitching, whether enjoyed with others or by oneself.
Four Children and It, by Jacqueline Wilson, Puffin, RRP£12.99
Both tribute and sequel to E Nesbit’s 1902 classic Five Children And It, revisiting that novel’s wish-granting sand-fairy in the present day. Four siblings learn that getting everything you want isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, in a genial fable with a serious message.
Superworm by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, Scholastic, RRP£10.99
The Gruffalo duo offer their unique take on the superhero. A worm dedicated to helping others falls foul of the villainous Wizard Lizard and his crow sidekick. The animals whose lives Superworm has enhanced band together to rescue him. A lively, rhyme-rich treat.
The Frank Show, by David Mackintosh, HarperCollins, RRP£10.99
A lesson in how to bridge the generation gap. Frank – so old he is drawn in black and white – may seem boring and dull to his grandson, but when he turns up to give a talk at school, it becomes clear that there’s far more to him than meets the eye.
Claude In The Country, by Alex Smith, Hodder, RRP£4.99
Absurd, quintessentially British humour from writer/illustrator Smith. Claude, a beret-wearing dog, and his best friend Sir Bobblysock, a stripy sock, visit a farm and engage in various rural pursuits in a story that’s whimsical and charming.
The Further Tale Of Peter Rabbit, by Emma Thompson, Frederick Warne, RRP£12.99
Actor and screenwriter Thompson turns in a very creditable pastiche starring Beatrix Potter’s best-loved character. Peter Rabbit has a fling in the Scottish Highlands in the company of a redoubtable relative, Finlay McBurney. The watercolour illustrations by Eleanor Taylor illuminate without slavishly emulating the Potter originals.
Harry and the Dinosaurs Go On Holiday!, by Ian Whybrow and Adrian Reynolds, Puffin, RRP£6.99
Harry and his bucket full of dinosaurs go on a family trip to Australia. The dinosaurs may look like plastic toys to everyone else but to Harry they’re an outlet for all his fears and concerns, avatars of pure imagination.
Editor of FT Weekend
I’ve been on a Peter Carey jag this year and peremptorily swiped the books editor’s copy of The Chemistry of Tears (Faber). Carey masterfully takes you on a journey through two interlinking stories, past and present. It jumps from a secret museum affair to a historic, escapist quest for a clockwork grail for a dying son. Oh, and a homage to Charles Babbage is in there too. It is a tale of dual obsession. The automaton was so vivid, when I finished the book I googled it. Joy: it exists.
Author of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’
Little of the fiction I’ve read over the past 12 months was published in 2012. But two very impressive works of non-fiction were. One was Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire (Allen Lane), not just an excellent history of Asia in the late colonial period, but also a valuable history for contemporary Asians thinking about the future of their continent. The other was Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal (Allen Lane), a breathtaking introduction to the world of cognitive neuroscience that changed my understanding of what we human beings are.
Author of ‘The New Republic’
TC Boyle’s San Miguel (Bloomsbury) demonstrates this author’s astonishing range in both style and genre. With none of the usual wryness or irony, Boyle tells a straight historical story about a sequence of three hapless women who inhabited a tiny windswept island off of California early last century. Compelling, beautifully written, and imaginative.
The Wolf Princess, by Cathryn Constable, Chicken House, RRP£6.99
Orphaned Sophie is in Russia on a school trip but, instead of following the itinerary, she is whirled away to the decaying palace of a mournful princess. Gradually, Sophie and her friends realise the princess might not be all she seems. Constable’s passion for Russian culture makes this a rich and fascinating read.
Spooks: Slither’s Tale, by Joseph Delaney, Bodley Head RRP£9.99
Fans of Delaney’s best-selling Spooks series will lap up this Beast-and-Beauty episode, but it’s also accessible to newcomers. A dying farmer gives up his eldest daughter as slave to a blood-drinking monster on condition that he delivers the other two daughters to safety. An unpleasant premise that develops into an interestingly perverse, gory, tale.
Boneland, by Alan Garner, Fourth Estate, RRP£16.99
Lovers of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath should try this opaque resolution of the trilogy. Now grown up, Garner’s hero, Colin, works at Jodrell Bank as an astronomer and Susan has vanished, possibly living in the Pleiades.
Turf, by John Lucas, Bodley Head, RRP£9.99
Sex, drugs and hip-hop: a gritty tale of life in a teenage gang in London’s East End, with a redeeming mystical edge to the mayhem. Jaylon, 15, struggles to balance his instinctive moral code with the demands of his peers. Superb.
Dodger, by Terry Pratchett, Doubleday, RRP£18.99
Pratchett rejigs Oliver Twist in this tale of a “tosher”, a boy who scours London’s sewers for small treasures. Evil Fagin is transformed into the benign Solomon Cohen, and even Dickens has a walk-on part, together with other Victorian figures. Tremendous fun.
Author of ‘Open City’
The novel that most impressed me this year was Katie Kitamura’s Gone to the Forest (Free Press, to be published in the UK in February by Clerkenwell Press). It’s a startling, discomfiting work, written in razor-sharp prose. The story she tells is one of submerged violence among “civilised” men in an unnamed country. JM Coetzee’s work comes to mind, as does Michael Haneke’s, but there’s a sweet coldness here that is all Kitamura’s. This is her second novel, a brilliant book early in what will surely be a major career.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Author of ‘Antifragile’
Le Rivage des Syrtes (José Corti, translated into English as The Opposing Shore) is a 1951 story by Julien Gracq about the antechamber of anticipation: how a character can be gripped by hope and let it penetrate his bones. The style is lapidary; it has texture, a wealth of details, and creates a mesmerising atmosphere. Once you enter the book, you are stuck there. This is the second time in my life a book had such an effect on me. Gracq, who refused the prix Goncourt for it, despised the corruption of literary circles; this book shows why.
Author of ‘Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia’
Like his previous book, The Fourth Part of the World, Toby Lester’s Da Vinci’s Ghost: The untold story of Vitruvian Man (Profile) is a wonderfully imaginative intellectual detective story that takes us across centuries of western history. The starting point is Leonardo’s iconic drawing of a nude male figure fitting exactly within a circle and a square. He sets out to uncover the thinking behind the image, connecting ideas and people from classical and medieval times to the Renaissance and providing us along the way with an endearingly human portrait of the great polymath himself.
This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Reinhard Heydrich’s assassins were Czech and Slovak, not Hungarian.