Best books of 2008

The climate, both financial and meteorological makes the idea of curling up with a good book more attractive than ever this Christmas. Here is Time Out Books editor John O'Connell's picks of the best books of 2008

  • See our guide to books for Christmas 2008

    Nothing to Be Frightened of

    Julian Barnes
    Cape £16.99
    A rapt meditation on death which 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 £12.99
    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 a world familiar to anyone who grew up before MP3s and the Cowellisation of pop.

    The Northern Clemency
    Philip Hensher
    Fourth Estate £17.99
    Hensher has chosen suburban Sheffield 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 twentieth century thrashes its way out of the 1970s.

    Tim Winton
    Picador £14.99
    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 1970s Australia, this is a lovely, sad book, with a strong sense of the undercurrents in a giant country that sometimes seems to have too much air.

    Lost Boys
    James Miller
    Little, Brown £12.99
    An electrifying first novel which trawls the culture for our biggest fears and preoccupations – missing children, teen gangs, Iraq, violent computer games – and blends them into a speculative fable pitched somewhere between JG Ballard and John Buchan.

    Mark E Smith
    Viking £18.99
    This candid, beguilingly bonkers autobiography from the Fall frontman (who called it ‘ “Mein Kampf” for the “Hollyoaks” generation’) was one of 2008’s most unexpected pleasures, not least for its best-possible-taste assertion that refurbished pubs are ‘concentration camps with taps’.

    Divine Magnetic Lands
    Timothy O’Grady
    Harvill Secker £18.99
    The harvest of a lifetime’s thinking on the problems and pleasures of America, O’Grady’s ‘road memoir’ explores the better of the country’s 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 £12.99
    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 distinctive style, with its sudden leaps of chronology and perspective, is almost fully developed here.

    Uncommon Arrangements
    Katie Roiphe
    Virago £12.99
    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 which pushed the boundaries of acceptability and mirrored the modernist firestorm sweeping through the arts. Read it and you’ll want to go out immediately and buy it for all the couples you know.

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

    Kitty Hauser
    Granta £16.99
    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 £11.99
    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 £25
    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 £7.99
    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 £25
    The New Yorker music critic takes 600 thrilling pages to map 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 both devotees and less classically literate music fans.

    The Good Plain Cook
    Bethan Roberts
    Serpent’s Tail £10.99
    Roberts’s excellent second novel is the tale of Kitty, a working-class girl employed as a cook by Ellen Steinberg, a bohemian American (based on Peggy Guggenheim) living in rural England. It has plenty to say about sex and class, and says it with subtle wit and concision.

    See our guide to books for Christmas 2008

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