Books of the Year 2008

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Fiction

As English has increasingly become the world's default language, more and more non-traditional and non-anglophone areas of experience have begun to find expression in the English novel. This year brought a bumper crop. Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Faber & Faber, [pounds sterling]7.99) was an outstanding example, dealing with the experience of a family from the Dominican Republic in contemporary New York, written in exuberant and inventive Spanglish.

Amitav Ghosh also created a rich vernacular hybrid of English and Hindi in his Sea of Poppies (John Murray, [pounds sterling] 18.99), a historical (and comical) romp set in 1837 India, and the first of an intended trilogy. The winner of this year's Man Booker Prize, Aravind Adiga's White Tiger (Atlantic, [pounds sterling]12.99), provided acute social criticism of 21st-century India, rich (in parts), rising, but riven with contradictions. Mohammed Hanif turned Pakistan's violent history into knockabout black comedy in A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Jonathan Cape, [pounds sterling]12.99), while Nadeem Aslam took Afghanistan's equally murderous past in The Wasted Vigil (Faber & Faber, [pounds sterling]17.99) and created a beautifully delicate tapestry of loss, memory and pain.

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In The Believers (Fig Tree, [pounds sterling]16.99), Zoe Heller drew an absorbing New York family saga in a taut 300 pages, while in Born Yesterday: the News As a Novel (Faber & Faber, [pounds sterling]7.99) Gordon Burn compressed the events with which the media bombarded us during summer 2007--the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the replacement of Tony Blair by Gordon Brown, the floods and foot-and-mouth disease--into an allusive and unsettling collage.

Politics

It's given to few books to be as perfectly timed as The Gods That Failed: How Blind Faith In Markets Has Cost Us Our Future (Bodley Head, [pounds sterling]12.99) by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, which appeared in June. In sardonic, anecdotal prose, they crisply outline the delusions that have led us to the current situation and offer modest proposals for a better and more equitable future. Robert Peston's Who Runs Britain ?: How Britain's New Elite Are Changing Our Lives (Hodder & Stoughton, [pounds sterling]20) offers more of the same, with a focus on new Labour and Gordon Brown's culpability. The situation in journalism was bad enough in March when Flat Earth News by Nick Davies (Chatto & Windus, [pounds sterling]17.99) first appeared. Today, as another wave of redundancies sweeps through the newspaper industry, its powerful critique of corporate and government pressures which cause falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the media is even more pertinent. The attacks in Mumbai showed that Muslim terrorism is spreading in Asia. Descent Into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia (Allen Lane, [pounds sterling]25) by Ahmed Rashid provides a lucid and detailed account of why.

History

Alex Ross at the New Yorker is one of the most perceptive music critics at work today. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century (Fourth Estate, [pounds sterling]20) is his brilliant and very readable history of classical music during the 20th century, from Strauss's Salome to Nixon in China, by way of serialism, Hollywood, Boulez and Stockhausen. …