Despite what you may have heard, 50 Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games and The Casual Vacancy weren’t the only books published this year…
Hope: A Tragedy - Shalom Auslander
Anne Frank is alive and well. In Shalom Auslander’s Hope; A Tragedy, anyway. She survived the Second World War and now lives in the loft of a typically small-town American farm where she’s trying to finish her second book. The difficult second novel. Soloman Kugel, needless to say, isn’t aware of this when he moves his family in from New York, searching for a fresh start.
Along with his mother, who is tormented by the memories of the concentration camps she wasn’t actually in, Kugel struggles to juggle family life and, well, Anne, when he discovers living in his attic. Auslander, author of Foreskin’s Lament, has written a choke-on-your-biscuit hilarious novel which treads a perfect line on the edge of political correctness. Funniest book of the year.
Bring up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel
Chances are that you’ve heard of this one. Some may think it’s a predictable choice, though the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize is really an absolute zinger. Hilary Mantel takes us back to the world of ‘her’ Thomas Cromwell, one of the finest characters in fiction of recent years. Cromwell has come a long way from his humble beginnings and is now Henry VIII’s go-to-guy, the man responsible for the rise of Anne Boleyn, and her inevitable fall.
If you’ve read the previous book, Wolf Hall, then great – you’ll love getting reacquainted with old friends, but Bring Up the Bodies also holds up as a standalone novel to boot. Perfect for the long Christmas holidays when you’re longing to behead a family member.
The Yellow Birds - Kevin Powell
Another award-winner on the list, this debut from Kevin Powell won the Guardian’s First Book Award in November. The Yellow Birdsfollows the story of Private John Bartle who is sent to serve in Iraq. The novel sees the young Bartle try to find reason in war, amidst fears and confusion, while trying to keep an impossible promise to his friend’s Mother that he’ll bring her son home to her.
Powell, who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, has been likened, perhaps inevitably, to Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer and the comparison isn’t an unsuitable one. His writing is stunning and it’s difficult to believe this is a debut novel.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk - Ben Fountain
The second post-Iraq American novel on the list, and another debut. Ben Fountain’s book brings the war back to America as Bravo Company are welcomed home after Fox News captured an intense firefight on camera and made national heroes of them all.
They’re all sent on a victory tour, culminating in a half-time show at a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game, where they’ll appear alongside Destiny’s Child. (This actually happened in 2004, and was part of the inspiration behind the book.)
The star of the video tape, and of the book, is 19-year-old Billy Lynn, who, on his victory tour, briefly rediscovers family life, fame and what it’s like to fall in love with a cheerleader. It’s funny, heart-breaking and very, very good.
Le Freak - Nile Rodgers
Nile Rodgers, the genius producer behind the band Chic, also wrote a couple of songs for other people. You’ve probably heard them. He penned Sister Sledge’s ‘We are Family’, David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Like a Virgin’ for Madonna. He also produced for INXS, Diana Ross, The Thompson Twins, Prince and Duran Duran.
Rodgers was born into a family of ‘dopefiend bohemians’ as he was uprooted from East to West Coast, and back again. He became dependant on drugs and drink, jammed with Jimi Hendrix and toured with Sesame Street before he hit the big time and dominated the disco scene, emanating from Studio 54.
Le Freak is an incredible autobiography, searingly honest and a true chance to discover just how much great music Rodgers made. The only bad thing is that you have to put it down every few minutes to search for the songs on YouTube and have a little jive.
The Apartment - Greg Baxter
Greg Baxter is light on detail in The Apartment. His unnamed narrator moves to an unidentified city in Europe for a reason we don’t know. He doesn’t know how long he’s going to stay in the city for, or what he’s going to do while he’s there. We follow this unnamed man around the city he’s moved to with a woman called Saskia. They’re exploring the city and looking for an apartment, along the way they buy clothes, play pool and eat.
This lack of specifics could be problematic, but Baxter uses the trick to intrigue as he takes us on a meander around city life. It’s a quiet novel, and it could be divisive – you could find the writing sparse and beautiful, or you could be a bit bored. For me, it was definitely the former.
Hawthorn and Child - Keith Ridgway
It’s a detective novel, only, it’s not. Not really. We meet Detectives Hawthorn and Child after a man has been shot on a London street, but this is merely the entrance to Keith Ridgway’s world.
We slip from the title characters to a pickpocket who gets a job as a driver for the local gang boss, Mishazzo. We find out about the pickpocket’s private life and his curious relationship with his girlfriend, a dead racing driver, the seemingly legal activities of Mishazzo and a publisher who receives an odd submission.
So it’s not a detective novel, but we’re never really sure what it is; a dream? A group of stories? Apocryphal tales? Well, as it says on the cover: ‘In Hawthorn & Child, the only certainty is that we've all misunderstood everything.’ It could be one to read more than once.
Jesus’ Son - Denis Johnson
Jesus’ Son was originally published back in 1992, but it had been out of print since until its reissue this year. It’s a series of short stories-cum-novel told from the eyes of a heroin and alcohol addict who meets a pick-and-mix of people as his mind veers from the blindingly cloudy to the vividly clear.
The people he meets along the way are as confused as he is, though the narrator is notoriously unreliable. It’s a cracking read, and will leave you wanting more from Johnson – look no further than his thriller novel Nobody Move.
Berlin Stories - Robert Walser
Originally written for various Berlin publications in the early twentieth century, this collection of short stories by Robert Walser has been compiled into this brilliant book by the New York Review of Books.
Walser moved to Berlin from Switzerland to live with his brother and spent his time writing about life in a new city. Read this when you’re in town, on a bus or a train, Walser will make you see things differently. If, like me, you work as a freelancer, he’ll make you feel bad about what he can make sound amazing.
Read it, and you’ll never be bored in a city again.
Lonely at the Top - Philippe Auclair
If there was ever a journalist to write about Thierry Henry, it was Philippe Auclair. The France Football writer penned an exquisite biography of Eric Cantona a few years ago and has followed it up with another just as brilliant.
Auclair was a big fan of Henry, as well as Arsenal, but explains how he drifted in and out of love with the striker. Through a difficult spell at Juventus and tough times with the national team, not to mention the Hand of Gaul, Auclair examines the Henry effect in great detail, but leaves it to the reader to make up their mind.
It’s surprising that this is only the second mainstream book on Henry, and the first one of real quality, but this exploration of one of the Premier League’s finest players is an enjoyable read for any football fan.
Missed anything? Let me know your favourite books of 2012 in the comments section.