Best books 2008

We take a look back at the best reads of 2008. Did we get it right? Tell us what your best reads were.

The Knowledge
Nothing To Be Frightened Of

Julian Barnes
Cape Dhs128 available at Magrudy’s

A rapt meditation on death that mixes essay and memoir to elegant, frequently moving effect. The author’s brother, Jonathan, is a significant, rather austere presence: Julian’s neatly ironic gloss on his agnosticism – ‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss him’ – he dismisses as ‘soppy’.

I Play The Drums In A Band Called Okay Toby Litt

Hamish Hamilton
Dhs98 available at Magrudy’s
The sad story of almost-mega Canadian band Okay, narrated by drummer Clap. Litt enjoys himself with pastiches of the rock-star interview, groupie dialogue and roadie camaraderie. It’s familiar to anyone who grew up before MP3s.

The Northern Clemency

Philip Hensher
Fourth Estate Dhs135 available at Magrudy’s

Hensher has chosen suburban UK as the setting for this intimate epic – a tale of two clans, the Glovers and the Sellers. Beyond the magnifying glass of his minute examination of marriage and parenthood, the 20th century thrashes its way out of the ’70s.

Breath Tim Winton

Picador
Dhs98 available at Magrudy’s

The story of Sando, his grumpy, lame wife, Eva, and their devastating impact on a couple of pre-teen surfers, one of whom, Pikelet, we first meet as a damaged adult. With its wonderful descriptions of rural Australia in the ’70s, this is a lovely, sad book, with a strong sense of the under-currents in a giant country that some-times seems to have too much air.

Lost Boys

James Miller
Little, Brown Dhs85 available to order at Magrudy’s

An electrifying first novel that trawls British culture’s biggest fears – missing children, teen gangs, Iraq, violent computer games – and blends them into a speculative fable pitched between JG Ballard and John Buchan.

Renegade

Mark E Smith
Viking Dhs143 available to order at Magrudy’s

This candid, beguilingly bonkers autobiography from The Fall’s frontman was one of 2008’s most unexpected pleasures, not least for its assertion that refurbished pubs are ‘concentration camps with taps’.

Divine Magnetic Lands

Timothy O’Grady
Harvill Secker Dhs124 available to order at Magrudy’s

The harvest of a lifetime’s thinking on the problems and pleasures of America, O’Grady’s ‘road memoir’ explores the better of its myths – freedom, courage, possibility – while referencing other literature of the American road: de Tocqueville, Dickens, de Beauvoir, Henry Miller, Steinbeck, Dylan et al.

Towards Another Summer

Janet Frame
Virago Dhs85 available to order at Magrudy’s

Written early in her career in 1963, Towards Another Summer spans a few days in the life of Grace Cleave, a fledgling novelist anxious about finishing her second book. Frame’s style, with its sudden leaps of chronology and perspective, is almost fully developed here.

Uncommon Arrangements

Katie Roiphe
Virago Dhs85 available to order at Magrudy’s

Acutely empathetic, pithily written portraits of seven Bloomsbury ‘marriages à la mode’, including Vanessa and Clive Bell, HG and Jane Wells and Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry. These were experiments in love that pushed the boundaries of acceptability and mirrored the modernist firestorm sweeping the arts. Read it and you’ll want to go out and buy it for all the couples you know.

Bloody Old Britain: OGS Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life

Kitty Hauser
Granta Dhs111 available to order at Magrudy’s

Crawford was a pioneering archaeologist, disappointed socialist and blustering misanthrope who became obsessed with aerial photography as a means of revealing the ‘secrets’ of the British landscape. Hauser’s beautiful book presents Crawford’s unlabelled images like those in the works of WG Sebald, but they could equally be from one of Martin Parr’s books of boring postcards.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

Kate Summerscale
Bloomsbury Dhs98 available at Magrudy’s

One June morning in 1860, the Kent family awoke to find their three-year-old son missing, apparently stolen from his cot. This real-life country house murder mystery is also a gruesome exposé of Victorian familial dysfunction and sexual hypocrisy. Summerscale’s prose gleams like a freshly sterilised scalpel.

John Lennon: The Life Philip Norman

HarperCollins Dhs83 available at Magrudy’s
This mammoth biography of the dead Beatle is fantastic on his childhood in post-war Liverpool and relationships with his mother, Julia, and Aunt Mimi, though it runs out of steam towards the end when its goal shifts to reinstating Yoko in the public’s affection.

Miracles of Life JG Ballard

HarperCollins Dhs60 available at Magrudy’s
Ballard’s memoir and, it must be assumed, swansong contains little that won’t already be familiar to his fans. But it’s still a mesmerising document, written with enormous honesty and clarity.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century Alex Ross

Fourth Estate Dhs130 available to order at Magrudy’s
The New Yorker music critic maps a route between a performance of Strauss’s opera Salome in 1906 and the premiere of John Adams’s opera Nixon in China in 1987. The result is entertaining, enlightening and inspiring to devotees and less classically literate music fans.

The Good Plain Cook

Bethan Roberts
Serpent’s Tail Dhs83 available to order at Magrudy’s

Roberts’s excellent second novel is the tale of Kitty, a working-class girl employed as a cook by Ellen Steinberg, a bohemian American living in rural England. It has plenty to say about sex and class, and says it with subtle wit and concision.

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