x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

New leaves

Feature From award-winners to e-readers, the world of books has enjoyed a year of fresh talent and technological innovation. We round up 2008's literary triumphs.

Aravind Adiga's debut novel, <i>The White Tiger</i>, won this year's Man Booker Prize.
Aravind Adiga's debut novel, <i>The White Tiger</i>, won this year's Man Booker Prize.

It says something about the state of the written word in 2008 that the most talked about moment in ­publishing wasn't a book at all. It was, in fact, the "e-reader". These hand-held devices, designed ­to make reading digitally published books as easy as their ­conventional equivalents, were everywhere. Gadgets including the iLiad, Kindle and Sony Reader were all billed as the iPod for the book reader, and for every fusty traditionalist who said they rather liked their dog-eared version of Middlemarch, plenty of others were ­downloading like never before. The author Naomi Alderman, writing in The Guardian, went so far as to triumphantly proclaim that the era of the e-reader wasn't "the death of the book, but the creation of a new art form". And even back in the world of good old-fashioned paper, there was also a sense that 2008 was the year of the new. The Tales of Beedle the Bard, the new offering from JK Rowling was an almost guaranteed hit, as was Breaking Dawn, the most recent ­instalment in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, which has done more to reanimate vampires than Buffy and led many to name Meyer as the pretender to Rowling's throne. Meanwhile, the Man Booker longlist included two debut novelists and one, Aravind Adiga, eventually took the coveted prize for The White Tiger. It was a controversial choice in many ways - the Indian ­journalist-turned-author uses a fair amount of Dickensian cliche about poverty and corruption to write a state-of-the-nation novel which colourfully tracks the rags-to-sort-of-riches tale of the protagonist Balram. However, the Booker chairman Michael Portillo had it spot on when he remarked that Adiga "undertakes an extraordinary task - he gains and holds the attention of the reader for a hero who is a thoroughgoing villain." Of course, thoroughgoing villains are vital to James Bond's continuing success, and it was a brave Sebastian Faulks who took on the ­challenge of writing "as Ian Fleming" the first new 007 book in years with Devil May Care. The suspicion remains that anyone could have had a go at writing an official James Bond ­novel and have it succeed. Nevertheless, though, Faulks' effort became ­Penguin's fastest-selling hardback ever, with the world's favourite ­secret agent taken back to the 1960s setting of the original stories.

Somewhat improbably, Charles McGrath in the New York Times was ecstatic, claiming that it was "in many ways a stronger novel than any that Fleming wrote, both because it's better written and because it has all the Bond lore to draw upon." Still, Euan Ferguson in The Observer was probably closer to the truth when he said "It's good. Which is to say it's better than it could have been. It is not, however, that good. Faulks has done in some ways an absolutely sterling job. He has resisted pastiche." Then there were the diehard Bond fans who went predictably crazy about the smallest of technicalities. Ah well, you can't please everyone?

But if Faulks was having fun with an already famous fictional characters, Curtis Sittenfeld did almost the opposite with American Wife, one of the year's most talked-about books. His main character was based on the real-life figure of the first lady, Laura Bush, and the story so near the knuckle that it remains a wonder that lawyers were not involved. After all, the book features a number of events that directly mirror Laura Bush's life. "Alice" kills a teenaged boy in a high-school car accident, works as a librarian and marries the heavy-drinking son of an elite Republican family who ends up President - and whose politics she disagrees with.

As revelations about Alice's past threaten to destroy the presidency, it becomes a thriller of sorts and, as Joyce Carol Oates put it in The New York Times, "a parable of America in the years of the second Bush presidency: the 'American wife' is in fact the American people, or at least those millions of Americans who voted for a less-than-qualified president in two elections." The novel was the subject of much debate, particularly as regards the pseudo-biographical nature of its content. USA Today even wondered if this basis in a limited amount of fact detracted from the book in the end. "It's a vicarious experience, an up-close portrait of the interior life of a very complicated woman. But most is fiction," wrote Carol Memmot.

The American experience was also convincingly explored in David Wroblewski's beautiful debut novel, The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle. On a Wisconsin farm in the first half of the 20th century, a mute boy - Edgar - raises a fictional breed of dogs who, as Oprah Winfrey said when she made it one of her influential Book Club's choices, "function like spirits in Shakespeare, or the chorus in Greek tragedy."

The Shakespeare reference is spot on. As Edgar tries to make sense of his father's death and his mother's new relationship, stories such as Hamlet are evoked. Still, it was Stephen King who summed up the nuances of this memorable book best. "I thought of Hamlet when I was reading it," he admitted. "And Watership Down, and The Night of the Hunter, and The Life of Pi. In the end, this is not a novel about dogs or heartland America, it is a novel about the human heart and the mysteries that live there, understood but impossible to articulate".

Wroblewski could indeed articulate such mysteries, and Joseph O'Neill brought a similar clarity to the previously indescribable with Netherland ? the subject being September 11. Netherland is not a book about the attacks themselves but about their aftermath - the splintered marriages, immigration, the American dream, the often unspoken challenges of male friendship - all tied up in a murder mystery.

In sum, it is the most readable book of 2008. The critical talk was not so much of whether it was good or not, but what it was about. In The New York Times Dwight Garner called it "the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we've yet had about life in New York after the World Trade Center fell." The literary critic for The New Yorker James Wood called it "one of the most remarkable postcolonial books I have ever read? it has been consistently misread as a September 11 novel, [it is actually] a postcolonial rewriting of The Great Gatsby."

Meanwhile, the talk of the Big Apple - when it wasn't Netherland, that is - was an altogether different book by The New Yorker's music critic. Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, which started making waves in 2007, gained worldwide acclaim this year. This non-fiction book was cast as the history of the 20th century through its music, from Igor Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring to the Velvet Underground. Somehow, Ross makes the most bizarre musical connections seem completely normal; suggesting that Public Enemy are the logical conclusion to the Czech composer Leo? Janácek's work. Anyone who read it was bowled over by its intelligence and clarity. As a result, it has not only not only become a word-of-mouth hit but sparked many a classical epiphany, as Björk suggested it might on the jacket. Not for nothing did The Economist say: "No other music critic writing in English can so effectively explain why you like a piece or beguile you to reconsider it, or prompt you to hurry online and buy a recording." Ross's real success, though, is to make the impenetrable not just understandable, but entertaining too.

This is something that has become Malcolm Gladwell's stock-in-trade. The journalist's previous two books on social phenomena - The Tipping Point and Blink - have sold millions but his latest, Outliers: The Story Of Success, has divided critics. Gladwell argues that success is not down to individual brilliance but context. Bill Gates and The Beatles were, he says, a combination of chance, hard work and personality.

The Guardian's Derek Draper may have appreciated that Gladwell "first identifies and then takes hitherto obscure ideas, fills them out into a compelling narrative and adds plenty of anecdote and drama, before finding for them a mass and appreciative audience". However, plenty disagreed, most memorably Germane Greer, who screeched: "There is no answer to everything, and only a deluded male would spend his life trying to find it."

Of course, Greer knows fully well the value of a good quote, something that Nick Davies explored memorably in Flat Earth News. Essentially an investigation into what really happens in newspapers, who really writes them, and why they publish what they publish, it could so easily have fallen into the trap of being a book about journalists, for journalists. But what raised Flat Earth News into being the kind of book for anyone who reads newspapers was Davies's straight talking and belief in a golden media age long since gone. Admittedly it is British focused, but the reviews were almost as enjoyable as the book itself.

Sam Leith in The Daily Telegraph was the most impressed, saying that it was "for the most part meticulous, fair-minded and utterly gripping. As an industry we are less and less good at telling the truth and it does Nick Davies credit to stand up and say so". Nevertheless, Peter Preston in The Guardian (the paper he once edited) was less enthralled. "This isn't the reporter as unbiased crusader, meticulously assembling his case. It's up close and personal," he wrote, as Davies laid into the connections between The Observer and the government and the coverage given to the Iraq invasion.

Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah: Italy's Other Mafia was also a hard-hitting success story. So successful, indeed, that it also provided the source material for one of the feature films of the year (Gomorrah) and led to Saviano himself fearing for his life. A real-life, Godfather-style tale of organised crime and murder, it becomes grippingly horrific as the reader grapples with the question of whether life in Naples is mirroring art or vice versa.

"This is a kaleidoscopic personal testimony rooted in a visceral rage and revulsion at what organised crime has done to one of the most beautiful places on earth? Italy is a country that needs heroes like him," John Dickie wrote of Saviano in The Guardian. Rachel Donadio in The New York Times had more problems with the anecdotal evidence, suggesting that some stories seemed "suspiciously perfect", but even she concluded that "the emotional truth of Saviano's account is unassailable; it becomes impossible to see Italy in the same way again".

Michael Pollan's In Defence of Food also asks readers to re-examine their ideas, this time about eating. Cast by many as the food book of the year, Pollan argues that in breaking down food to its constituent elements in our obsession with healthy eating, we have become less healthy, and that we need to return to the simpler pleasures of cooking. Bee Wilson in The Times put it best when she said: "A book telling us to 'eat food' sounds about as necessary as one telling us to 'breathe air', 'wear clothes' or 'drink water'? but Pollan has a lyrical persuasion." The Daily Mail were more impressed, saying "reading Michael Pollan is like watching a hot knife slice through butter. It instantly makes redundant all diet books and 99 per cent of discussions around healthy eating". It was left to Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian to digest that, actually, Pollan's manifesto was lyrical but "rather fuzzy", but by then, most people were sold on the book's ideas. Which, of course, is exactly how the best non-fiction should be.

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin Alexander McCall Smith's African-set No1 Ladies Detective Agency series is hugely popular around the world, and Baking Cakes In Kigali is very much in the same vein. Angel Tungaraza is a professional cake-baker, matchmaker and general shoulder to cry on in this witty and poignant Rwandan tale of how people try to survive in a country attempting to cope with a brutal and violent past. Almost certainly one for the book clubs, it is bound to charm travellers in airport waiting lounges across the globe. Published in January. The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor Taking the story of Noah as its (very loose) starting point, this novel finds eight-year-old Finn, his father, and sisters on the wreck of an ark, washed up on a remote island. Are they the last surviving humans, or is someone out there? Taylor magically weaves the nature of family, reality and storytelling itself into his third, thoughtful novel. Published in January. Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore This book on the groundbreaking biologist and writer will likely become the most talked about non-fiction work of 2009. Not only are the roots of Darwin's evolutionary theory explained, but his motives - a deep personal disgust at slavery and racism. Biographies will not come much better than this. Published in February. Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro If there is only one collection of short stories to buy in 2009, it will be Ishiguro's. Written in a cycle and taking in Italy, London and Hollywood, all the characters, be they struggling stars, youthful dreamers or jobbing musicians, have reached potentially life-changing moments in their music-influenced lives. Ishiguro's trademark style - beautifully spare and delightfully human - is both simple and affecting. Published in May. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters Waters is the pre-eminent British historical thriller writer of our times, as the much loved Tipping The Velvet, Fingersmith, and most recently, the 1940s-set The Night Watch proved. She sticks with that period for The Little Stranger, in which a crumbling manor house is the centrepiece for a chilling ghost story. Published in June.