Books of the year: critics' choice at Christmas

Dec 21, 2012

The top eight books published in 2012 according to the London newspapers' Christmas selections

This list was created using the Christmas selections in the main national newspapers, plus the London Evening Standard, the TLS, The Spectator and the New Statesman.

1. NW by Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, £18.99

Zadie Smith's first novel in seven years zeroed in on a small patch of north west London, following the lives of four people all born on the same Willesden council estate. NW is not an easy read, like her best-known novels – it's fragmented, and some critics found the shifts in style confusing. But most of them praised it to the skies as a wonderfully vivid portrait of London life today.

Number of votes: 14

Who chose it? David Nicholls, James Wood, Philip Hensher, Ian Thomson, John Lanchester, and nine others.

Praise: "One of the most disturbing, bottomless novels I've read for a long time." (Alex Clark, TLS)

"She has the best ear in contemporary fiction." (Philip Hensher, Spectator)

"Caught the fractured rhythms and drifting thought-lines of contemporary London beautifully." (Richard Godwin, London Evening Standard)

"Very much a modern novel, but its formal experiments never come at the expense of the story Smith is trying to tell." (Tim Martin, The Daily Telegraph)

=2. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate £20

The Man Booker Prize went, once again, to Hilary Mantel – who also won it for her first novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall. The more sombre sequel focuses on the downfall of Anne Boleyn, and the start of Henry VIII's love affair with Jane Seymour. Mantel was acclaimed, again, for rescuing the historical novel from bodice-ripping archaism, and for balancing scholarly detail with a gripping plot. A few dissenting voices, however, complained that the book was slow-moving, laborious and perversely pro-Cromwell.

Number of votes: 13

Who chose it? Simon Sebag Montefiore, David Marquand, Joan Bakewell, Sarah Sands, Chris Blackhurst and eight others.

Praise: "Superb history as well as magnificent literature." (David Marquand, New Statesman)

"Brings an entire age blazingly to life." (Simon Sebag Montefiore, Mail on Sunday)

"Daubed in rich narrative colours, this is a great novel of dark and dirty passions, both public and private" (George Pendle, the FT)

=2. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane
Hamish Hamilton £20

For his latest book, Robert Macfarlane followed ancient tracks, drove roads and sea paths around Britain; he walked across the West Bank; and he hiked round a Tibetan moutain at 15,000 feet. A mixture of travelogue and scholarship, The Old Ways examines the network of paths that have criss-crossed the earth since prehistoric times. The result, almost all the critics agreed, was a remarkable examination of landscape and what it means to us.

Number of votes: 13

Who chose it? Andrew Motion, Philip Pullman, Jan Morris, Antony Beevor, John Banville, Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple, Penelope Lively, John Gray and four others.

Praise: "A hauntingly beautiful addition to the school of visionary nature writing." (Jan Morris, The Sunday Telegraph)

"Sent me out on many long walks." (David Nicholls, The Guardian)

"He has a poet's eye, and a prose style that will make many a novelist burn with envy." (John Banville, The Observer)

4. Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum
Allen Lane £25

Anne Applebaum's account of how Eastern Europe escaped from Nazi control only to crushed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War received rave reviews. The result of years of original research in archives across the region, it tells how the Red Army's violence, rape and looting was followed by the imposition of Stalinism. Even the boy scouts, the YMCA and sports clubs were banned, as a threat to the socialist order.

Number of votes: 11

Who chose it? Michael Gove, A.N. Wilson, Simon Heffer, Dominic Sandbrook, Rachel Polonsky, Andrew Roberts and five others.

Praise: "Toweringly the most impressive work of history I have read this year." (AN Wilson, TLS)

"A timely and compelling history, as the Cold War recedes from memory." (Gideon Rachman, Financial Times)

"The outstanding book of the year – actually a masterpiece." (Oliver Kamm, The Times)

5. Canada by Richard Ford
Bloomsbury £12.99

"First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later." The opening lines of Richard Ford's new novel are already famous; and his story, set in 1950s Montana, of how a teenager is violently uprooted and flees across the border to Canada, met with near-universal acclaim. Despite the material, it's far from sensational. It's sombre, and moves at a stately pace: one writer described it as "majestically downbeat".

Number of votes: 10

Who chose it? Sue Townsend, Colm Toibin, Salley Vickers, Blake Morrison, Philip Hensher, and five others.

Praise: "A bizarrely credible tragedy conveyed through a superbly realised damaged consciousness." (Salley Vickers, The Observer)

"Written with a quiet, hypnotic brilliance that had me weeping with envy." (Sue Townsend, The Guardian)

"A beautiful examination of what happens when a boy's life is stripped of all its protective layers." (Charlotte Moore, Spectator)

=6. Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper
John Murray £25

The adventurer, polymath and war hero Paddy Leigh Fermor walked across Europe in 1933, aged 18, and wrote two classic travel books about the journey. Later, he kidnapped a German general in Crete, fought with the royalist cavalry in Greece, and was knifed in Bulgaria, among many other adventures. Artermis Cooper was a close family friend; her biography was admired for being affectionate, but also not ignoring his faults and his often rackety behaviour.

Number of votes: 9

Who chose it? Robert Macfarlane, Jan Morris, William Dalrymple, Jane Ridley, Nicholas Shakespeare and four others.

Praise: "Fermor, Cooper shows, was not above making things up, and could be as snobbish as he was charming and erudite. But his restless existence makes for intriguing reading." (Andrew Holgate, The Sunday Times)

"Proved magnificently that a somewhat over-eulogised hero could be well worth eulogising after all." (Jan Morris, Sunday Telegraph)

=6. The Passage of Power by Robert A Caro
Bodley Head £35

Thirty six years ago, Robert Caro started his biography of Lyndon B Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, who pushed through the civil rights laws and led America deeper into Vietnam. The fourth volume of this epic life – covering LBJ's succession after the assassination of JFK – came out this year, to an extremely enthusiastic response. The Passage of Power was cult reading in political circles.

Number of votes: 9

Who chose it? Annie Proulx, Craig Brown, Robert Harris, Kathryn Hughes and five others.

Praise: "My book of the year, by a landslide majority. LBJ emerges from this biography as a fully rounded tragic hero: cowardly and brave, petty and magnificent, vindictive and noble, a man of vaunting ambition and profound insecurities." (Robert Harris, The Guardian)

"It simply has no equal… You're riding in the Dallas motorcade when the first shot rings out…"(Dan Hodges, The Daily Telegraph)

"It's a fascinating story, Shakespearean in its passion and fury, as well as darkly comical." (Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday)

8. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Portobello Books £14.99

The Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Katherine Boo spent three years in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi – a sprawling group of shacks encircled by luxury hotels and hidden from view by advertising hoardings (hence the title). The result was a worm's eye view of corruption and gross in equality of the new India, which was ectstatically received from New York to New Delhi, and won a US National Book Award.

Number of votes: 8

Who chose it? Salman Rushdie, David Hare, Roy Foster, Blake Morrison and four others.

Praise: "Sets a gold standard for exactly what a gifted reporter may still do alone... you put it down enraged, entertained and richly informed" (David Hare, Guardian)

"The harsh life of a Mumbai slum vividly recreated in unusually beautiful prose. Her characters are irresistibly alive. No slumdogs or millionaires here. Just the truth."(Salman Rushdie, The Times)

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