Year in review(s)

It must be late November. Newspapers everywhere have started publishing their annual lists of Best Books.
The New York Times hedges its bets with its list of 100 Notable Books of 2005. You understand these are notable, rather than necessarily brilliant, books, and the list seems to be a miscellany gleaned from previous reviews. That means Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince appears in the same category as the latest by Elmore Leonard, E. L. Doctorow, and Zadie Smith. And why not? (I haven’t read, for the sake of my health, Camille Paglia’s new essays, but the NY Times describes them as “written without ego”, which is the best evidence I’ve ever heard for alien abduction theories.)
In London, the Sunday Times doesn’t go in for any such mealy-mouthed nonsense. Its Best Fiction of 2005 has a go at the Man Booker judges (“John Banville’s numbingly pretentious The Sea has brought the prize’s reputation to a low ebb”) and selects Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Julian Barnes’s Arthur & George to top a sensibly argued list of favourites.
The good old Observer sought advice from “leading figures” including Jan Morris, who selected Charles Nicholl’s Leonardo as best biography and Tom Holland’s Persian Fire as “most exciting historical narrative”. Sarah Waters chose Rory Stewart’s Afghanistan odyssey, The Places in Between, while Deborah Moggach raves about Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.
The book reviewers over at the New Statesman are a terrifying lot – the list includes names like Byatt, Toibin and Dalrymple, usually on these lists as contenders. Hilary Mantel, an expert on public executions (note to self: add A Place of Greater Safety to favourites list), liked The Tyrannicide Brief by lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, while J G Ballard can’t decide between Tony Judt’s Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945 and the anonymous diary, A Woman in Berlin.
You’ll know it’s December when they start on the Books to Watch in 2006 lists.

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