Our bluffer's guide to the year in books

Hold your own at any Christmas dinner party.
By Rachel Aspden, Henrietta Clancy and Daniel Trilling

Best novel of the year

"O death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind," reads a line in the medieval morality play Everyman, from which Philip Roth takes the title for his latest novel. Roth's readers shouldn't be startled, however, as the story begins with the funeral of a Jewish advertising exec from New Jersey and recounts his progress through three marriages and a catalogue of diseases as his body disintegrates around him. Weighing in at a slimline 192 pages, Everyman dispenses with the irreverent musings that characterise Roth's longer novels, concentrating instead on a no-holds-barred exploration of our own creeping mortality. Anyone who suspects the novel to have autobiographical elements would be wise to hold their tongue, as Roth recently said that all literary critics, amateur or otherwise, should be shot.

What the critics said:

"Roth has always written of sex and death . . . and it is as if at times here he wants to distil all of his biological wisdom on the subject." (Tim Adams, Observer)

"A human story for our times." (A S Byatt, New Statesman)

What you should think: Life's a schvitz and then you die.

Turncoat of the year

As if mounting chaos in Iraq and impending doom in the mid-terms weren't enough, in October President George W Bush suddenly found himself in the sights of the journalist who brought down Richard Nixon. Until then a supporter of the "war on terror" and the Iraqi bloodbath, the former Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward chose this electorally sensitive moment to publish State of Denial, the final instalment in a trilogy of books about the Bush administration. Woodward claimed that the Bush administration had deliberately covered up the extent of the violence in Iraq and withheld vital security information from the UK government. Some commentators detected a whiff of sour grapes, as key government figures, including Bush himself, refused to be interviewed for the book.

What the critics said:

"Remarkable . . . feels all the more outraged for its measured, non-partisan tones and relentless reporting." (Ted Widmer, Washington Post)

"Woodward Mark Three isn't as brave or as liberal as his admirers claim." (Peter Preston, Guardian)

What you should think: On Iraq, Woodward quotes President Bush as saying: "I will not withdraw, even if Laura and Barney [the White House dog] are the only ones supporting me." He had better start stocking up on Pedigree Chum.

Neo-conette of the year

Derided and adored in equal measure for her Daily Mail column (sample argument: "We just don't know whether global warming is happening"), Melanie Phillips shifted her sights to bogey-du-jour political Islam in Londonistan. Her diagnosis that liberal "decadence, self-loathing and sentimentality" have transformed our capital into a teeming nest of murderous jihadis neatly split the British commentariat. Tory types rallied to her warning that tolerating Islamists "imperils the defence of the free world", while lefties rolled their eyes at Mad Mel's "spittle-flecked" polemics.

What the critics said:

"I defer to few in my admiration for her relentless logic and the courage and persistence with which she expresses it." (Simon Heffer, Telegraph)

"She seems unable to do more than extrapolate second-hand texts and push their awful meaning to its outer limits." (Peter Preston, Guardian)

What you should think: Yes, Mel, there are raving fanatics in London . . .

Damp squib of the year

Billed as the political publishing event of the year, the arrival of The Blunkett Tapes did not quite live up to expectations. David Blunkett's choice to chronicle his time in government created widespread anticipation, shortly followed by a universal feeling of having been cheated. With the removal of anything private from a supposed diary, all we were left with were the boring official bits. Despite poor sales, The Blunkett Tapes proved to be quite a little earner for the former cabinet minister, with the rights sold to the BBC and the diaries serialised on Radio 4.

What the critics said:

"Page after page of self-justification, moaning and betrayal of confidences." (Stephen Pollard, Times)

"The level of surveillance and harassment suffered by David was exceptional." (Stephen Byers, New Statesman)

What you should think: Spare another sigh for Alan Clark.

Lost gem of the year

The received wisdom is that comic novels don't win prizes. Not that an industry slap on the back is the apogee of literary endeavour, but it's nice to be noticed. Pity poor Howard Jacobson, then, who has written a dozen or so smart and incredibly funny novels, yet never won a major award. Jacobson's Kalooki Nights, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize, looked set to change all that. Following the story of Max Glickman, a Jewish cartoonist from Manchester who struggles to be taken for a serious artist, Kalooki Nights takes a comic look at some very serious subjects: murder, race, identity and the Holocaust. Far from flippant, the result is a touchingly misanthropic novel, but did the Booker judges recognise this talent? Nope.

What the critics said:

"His one-man boxing match entertains and appalls in equal measure." (Bryan Cheyette, Guardian)

"The reader - entertained, exhausted and ennobled - will finish this colossal work of art in remembrance and sorrow." (Christopher Cleave, Daily Telegraph)

What you should think: Award ceremonies - they're all rigged.

Fundamentalist of the year

Evolutionary biologist and Oxford don Richard Dawkins has always seen his remit as extending far beyond the science lab. He has courted controversy since the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976, but this year went for the cultural jugular with his all-out attack on religion, The God Delusion. Conveniently forgetting that a good scientist always sets out to test his theory by trying to disprove it, Dawkins unleashes a torrent of invective against religion in all its forms. There is no room for subtlety, and Dawkins gives short shrift to the idea that perfectly rational people are capable of religious beliefs. Powerful stuff, but some have pointed out that this is less a defence of enlightenment thought than a reassertion of the very English belief that common sense conquers all.

What the critics said:

"Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology." (Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books)

"[Dawkins] disregards the risk that attacking a people's religion may amount to an attack on them as a group." (Marek Kohn, Independent)

What you should think: There is definitely delusion at work here, but on whose part, you decide.

"Me, me, me" of the year

Jade Goody shot to fame through her conversational gems in Big Brother in 2002. She thought "East Angular" was abroad and that people from Portugal were "Portugaleese". Three years later, Jade still sells more tabloids and magazines than any reality TV star in history, so it comes as no surprise that Jade: my autobiography has spent an inordinate amount of the year bobbing along in the bestseller lists. There are dramas aplenty in the tale of Jade's 24 years: abandoned by a father, living with a lesbian mother, a boob job, you name it. Not to forget the mental scars that any time spent in the BB house guarantees.

What the critics said:

"My dad bought me this in Asda - it was in the bargain bin - and I couldn't put it down!" (Reviewer, Amazon.co.uk)

"Like listening to a machine-gun being fired a few inches from your ear."

(Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday)

What you should think: Chantelle's autobiography Living the Dream: my story is out now. Hurry, while stocks last.

Underdog of the year

Journalists queued up to interview the Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, whose father - a dissident living in Cairo - was kidnapped, taken back to Tripoli and tortured while his son was studying in London. In the Country of Men, set in Colonel Gaddafi's Libya, where Matar spent part of his childhood, was marketed as a child's-eye view of social and political brutality. Yet Matar never intended to write a political novel - he claims to be "a sensualist and an aesthete" - and some detected the publisher's dread demand for "relevance" in his book's final form.

What the critics said:

"Neither unputdownable nor memorable." (Matt Westcott, Northern Echo)

"A tender evocation of universal human conflicts." (Oscar Turner, Observer)

What you should think: Next time round, let's hope Matar's editors allow him to indulge that sensualist side.