28th June 2012 - Jonathan Ruppin
The next few months see a bumper crop of new fiction on its way. Our Web Editor, Jonathan Ruppin, picks out the big names, the best debuts and some of the quirkier titles you'll be finding on the shelves, as well as offering a tip or two for this year's Man Booker Prize.
While there were many terrific debuts in the first half of 2012 (see my blog back in January), it has been four established authors, perhaps not surprisingly, who have dominated sales: the new novels from Hilary Mantel, Richard Ford, Martin Amis and John Lanchester have all proved very popular.
It's perhaps just as well for them that their books are already out, as the upcoming schedules are so packed with big names that some who might expect to be bestsellers could end up being overlooked by readers. And for the same reason, I'm also going to cover just the next three months, instead of the usual six. The usual caveat about shifting schedules applies, with the added note that many August titles in particular are due in the last week or two of the month.
What with his Benjamin Black crime novels, John Banville has been quite prodigious of late. His new one, Ancient Light, which seems him move from Picador to Viking after many years, certainly has hints of his mesmerising 2005 Man Booker Prize winner, The Sea, with its mood of reminiscence and regret; it should also satisfy those who would have liked a little more plot to complement his Nabokovian prose. (You can find out about John Banville's 20 favourite books here.)
There are certain highly distinctive authors - like Ali Smith, Magnus Mills or Sarah Hall - who inspire real devotion in their fans and Nicola Barker is developing a similar following. The Yips is a raucous, uproarious state-of the-nation (six years ago) romp that should see her commercial appeal continue to close the gap on her critical acclaim.
My favourite book out this month is probably Kerry Hudson's Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. Kerry draws on her own itinerant childhood in some of the most deprived areas of Britain to create the story of an upbringing that will make you rage at the inequalities of life in contemporary Britain, along with the occasional subversion of David Copperfield. As a nice middle-class boy from north London, I couldn't begin to tell you if it's "authentic", but what I can say it's that it's deeply plausible, with characters who would take violent issue with anyone who suggested they were anything less than fully alive. Trainspotting on E-numbers, if you're looking for a snappy synopsis. (Click here to read my interview with Kerry.)
I felt Monique Roffey's Orange Prize-shortlisted The White Woman on the Green Bicycle was superior to Barbara Kingsolver's winner, The Lacuna, so her new one had a lot to live up to. Archipelago is slighter in scope, but nevertheless a very engaging tale of a man escaping from tragedy by going to sea, albeit with a small child and a dog in tow. (You can read my interview with Monique here.)
Stuart Evers' Ten Stories about Smoking was perhaps the stand-out British short story collection of 2011 and his first novel confirms all the promise. If This is Home is a cracking story about identity, home and the dark impulses of men. (Click here to read my interview with Stuart.)
I presumed Suzanne Joinson's A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar was going to be charming but slight. But its intertwined tales of turn-of-the-century missionaries and a woman looking for roots in the present day are rather more substantial, with a lot to say about how we engage with the alien, and deeply satisfying prose.
Ned Beauman's Boxer, Beetle was a stunning debut that reminded me of Zadie Smith's White Teeth or Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World, as in all cases clearly talented debut authors threw everything they could at their books and almost all of it stuck. The Teleportation Accident is as madcap as you expect any book whose author declares William Faulkner and H P Lovecraft both to be influences upon it and it's certainly worth indulging Beauman the occasional bum note in his prose because it's largely brilliant.
When I was a judge for Costa Novel Award in 2010, I tried and, regrettably, failed to persuade my fellow judges to shortlist Susan Fletcher's Witch Light (originally titled Corrag in hardback), so I hope that The Silver Dark Sea might find favour with those who have previously shunned her writing. For now, however, I can only tell you that it's about a mysterious island onto whose shores a strange man is cast.
Finally, Ben Lerner's debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, comes highly recommended by a number of colleagues. A young man on a poetry scholarship in Madrid overindulges in all the intoxicants available in the early 21st-century and makes profound discoveries about the nature of relationships and how art and real life overlap.
The name 'Merivel' should ring a bell with Rose Tremain fans. The star of 1990's Restoration returns - although prior reading of the first book is not required - and Merivel: A Man of His Time should find a home with anyone who's been enjoying Hilary Mantel's two recent Tudor novels. I'm not the first, and won't be the last, to tip it for this year's Man Booker Prize, but whether it wins or not, this rich, funny and utterly delightful book is going to be a huge hit.
I've not been taken by much of Ian McEwan's recent output, but Sweet Tooth is just the book to win back doubters like me. A female Cambridge undergraduate is groomed by the intelligence services to infiltrate the life of a writer, but, drawn by his fiction, she falls in love with him. Moving, gripping and featuring a terrific twist, this will be huge and I'm willing to bet that there'll be a film adaptation starring Carey Mulligan in pretty short order.
Umbrella is the novel in which Will Self's storytelling finally matches his potently playful use of language. Reclaiming modernism for the 21st century, it takes us from a Victorian mental asylum to technology's cutting edge tomorrow in a sweeping and undoubtedly challenging epic.
There's a fair bit of industry buzz about Tigers in Red Weather by Lisa Klaussmann (not to be confused with Ruth Padel's 2005 wildlife travelogue of the same name). The story skips back and forth but has at its centre a summer in the 1950s, during which a wealthy family, holidaying in their Martha's Vineyard, expose a sinister secret that tears the family apart beneath the searing summer heat.
Richard Milward is the acceptable face of hipsterism, where style doesn't trump substance. Kimberley's Capital Punishment is a provocative and often downright uncomfortable morality tale with six endings to choose from, a device which really isn't as gimmicky as it sounds.
In Toby's Room by Pat Barker, a young woman searches for the truth about her brother's death in the trenches of World War I. This is Barker at her most powerful and moving. While it has characters in common with her previous novel, Life Class, it shouldn't be considered a sequel and can be read alone with no loss.
In Nell Freudenberger's The Newlyweds, George, in New York, courts Amina, in Bangladesh, online, but the marriage that ensues is dogged by dark secrets on both sides. Sharper than Franzen and warmer than Eugenides, Freudenberger is swiftly attaining essential reading status.
Among the more offbeat highlights is The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian. A diluvian catastrophe leaves a hospital floating in Ark-like solitude, leaving the doctors and their charges within to contemplate their former home until matters take a supernatural turn.
I've not read James Kelman's Mo Said She Was Quirky, but there is always a deep intelligence beneath his uncompromising storytelling. This story of twenty-four hours in the life of a hitherto unremarkable woman sounds like it might have more mainstream appeal than usual.
Fuminori Nakamura is perhaps Japan's finest young writer, already racking up major awards in his homeland. The Thief, winner of the biggest of them all, the Oe Prize, is his first to appear in English. A pickpocket's life in the shadows is turned upside-down when he is approached for a seemingly simple safe-cracking job, only to find himself implicated in the death of a prominent politician.
There are, not surprisingly, no advance copies to be had of J K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, although the brief description released by her new publisher makes it sound like a gentle tale of village intrigue. It's out on the 27th and what can be said for certain is that it will sell in its hundreds of thousands and that scores of jealous reviewers will rip it to shreds whether it's any good or not.
I had planned to have finished NW by Zadie Smith by the time I wrote this, but I'm only part way through: it's proving to be a book that rewards being read at a more contemplative pace. Judging by the reaction when we tweeted the cover design a couple of months ago, the seven years since On Beauty have only whetted appetites further, so I'm pleased to report only positive things so far about this report on London's incongruous juxtaposition of dereliction and aspiration. So much of what she tries would fall flat in lesser hands, but Smith has language firmly yoked to her ingenious purposes.
We've had askance takes on the life of Jesus before: Jim Crace's Quarantine, Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and José Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ spring first to mind. Naomi Alderman's splendid variation is The Liars' Gospel, which presents the human side of the son of God through four less than saintly voices.
Johnny Depp is developing a film version of James Meek's The People's Act of Love, so the slightly more accessible nature of his new one is perhaps well-timed. The Heart Broke In is a fairly traditional family drama, albeit with some very contemporary details.
Howard Jacobson's first since The Finkler Question took the Man Booker - the trade's general conclusion (as has so often been the case): right author, wrong book - sees him return to the more humorous vein that has served him so well and also to his favourite trope of relationships between men and women. In Zoo Time, a novelist is smitten by his wife's mother; the wife in question is highly strung and has decided to turn to fiction herself and the signs are it's based on real life. There is more than a hint of parody of publishing at its internecine worst here.
Lawrence Norfolk's infrequent fiction is dazzling but always challenging; Adam Thorpe is the nearest comparison I can make. John Saturnall's Feast, a Civil War tale of an orphan boy who finds himself in King Charles' household, is studded with historical detail and may just hold enough commercial appeal to reward one of literature's most unsung talents with significant sales.
The Yellow Birds is not the first novel reflecting on the conflict in Iraq, but Kevin Powers is certainly the only published poet with actual combat experience to have tackled it. His prose is extraordinary, which only heightens the contrast with the trauma and quotidian violence he describes. Comparisons with Michael Herr's classic account of Vietnam, Dispatches, are not unreasonable.
Denis Johnson's Train Dreams was originally published in The Paris Review ten years ago. This may be why the Pulitzer Prize panel didn't want to give it this year's Fiction Prize. (They also felt the other two nominated titles weren't suitable either, resulting in the first gap on the honours board since 1977.) It is a simple and beautiful tale of a turn-of-the-century American labourer who struggles to come to terms with the loss of hi family in a wildfire and the radical changes in the world around him.
It's easy for an independent bookseller to sympathise with the characters of Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue: two band members fear for their record shop when a new megastore in the same road is announced. Friendships and their families come under threat, but there is much fun to be had amidst the heartache. It may not make for much of a review, but this really is terrific.
Attica Locke's Black Water Rising was the wildcard on the 2010 Orange Prize shortlist and The Cutting Season is a similarly effective literary thriller, bringing the dark past of America's deep South into conflict with the supposed harmony of the era of Barack Obama.
Philida by André Brink confronts, without flinching, his own family's slave-owning past. In 1832, with rumours of liberation in the air, one woman picks up the courage to make a complaint against her master, who has fathered four children by her and who had promised to set her free. A likely Man Booker contender.
The author wheeled out, on the rare occasions the BBC fulfils its public service remit by broadcasting something on books, to be the face of contemporary British literature, Sebastian Faulks, has a new one sounds that like it should have an appropriately broad appeal. The shared experiences of humanity is the theme of the multi-stranded A Possible Life, in which love, grief, loss and other powerful emotions make connections across continents.
I've only just found out about a late, and very exciting, addition to the schedules: This is How You Lose Her is a new collection of short stories from Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz. Look out for a pre-publication event with Junot at Foyles, to be announced shortly.
Finally, one book that's not fiction but that will have as much impact as any of the novels I've mentioned: Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie. This is his long-awaited autobiography, covering the years he spent under police protection after the infamous fatwa. Joseph Anton is the pseudonym he chose, after his two favourite writers, Conrad and Chekhov. There are no advance copies - reviewers will be required to come to the publisher's office and read it there - but his editor suggests readers will be surprised by its wit and warmth.
Those are the highlights, but this is, of course, just a small sample of the new fiction you'll find in-store over the next three months. So, give yourself a little time and have a browse next time you're out shopping for books. You'll find treasures lurking on every shelf and table, and booksellers at the ready with advice and suggestions.
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