1st October 2012 - Jonathan Ruppin
After nine months full of enough great new fiction to satisfy even the pickiest of readers, the last few months of the year see relatively few new novels appearing on our shelves. But our Web Editor, Jonathan Ruppin, has trawled the schedules and still managed to find a few gems, incuding books from three Nobel Laureates and previously unpublished hard-boiled crime from Dashiel Hammett.
The last three months of the year are traditionally quiet for new fiction. There are two reasons for this. First, publishers hoping to win a significant portion of the lucrative Christmas market like to get their books out early enough for word-of-mouth to boost a book's reputation. And second, the cut-off publication date for Man Booker Prize submissions is 30th September (and books published late the year before have a notoriously poor track record for the award.)
Still, aside from the fact that 2012 has already been, by fairly widespread consent, an outstanding year for new fiction (my earlier blogs covering January to June and July to September pick out just a few of the highlights), there's still enough coming out before the end of the year to make it worth your while having a good mooch in the fiction department.
Tom Wolfe's last novel, 2004's I Am Charlotte Simmons, was, even his editor admits, not good. Back to Blood, we are earnestly assured, is Wolfe back to his best. (If it's not, there will be a fair few critics more than happy to let him know.) Set in Biscayne Bay in Miami, it features a police chief, a Cuban mayor, a New York journalist and his editor, siblings from Haiti, a billionaire porn addict, crack dealers, conceptual artists, orgy fanatics and the Russian mafia. Fun for all the family.
My favourite book of the month is May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes, whom you may know as the author either of the highly controversial The End of Alice, with its paedophile protagonists, or of the bestselling erstwhile Richard & Judy pick This Book Will Save Your Life. A biographer of Richard Nixon becomes the guardian of his niece and nephew after their father first causes a fatal road accident and then murders their mother. While his brother is shifted from one bizarre institution to another, the biographer finds himself losing his teaching job, embarking on strange affairs initiated online and becoming a surrogate father to the child orphaned in the crash. It's one for fans of Jeffrey Eugenides and Richard Russo.
I don't usually cover graphic novels, as their appeal largely remains a mystery to me (a lot of effort for too few words!), but a new one from Chris Ware has caught even my attention. It's been eleven years since Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth won the Guardian First Book Award (this remains the only time a graphic novel has won a major UK literary award), but the appeal and the standard of the genre has both grown vastly since. Building Stories, which comes in a delightfully elaborate box full of all sorts of deluxe extras, tells the stories of three women living in a Chicago apartment block: it's comic, tragic and profound.
Colm Tóibín's new novella, The Testament of Mary, offers a perspective on the later life of the mother of Jesus, as she tries to come to terms with the crucifixion of her son and the myths that are already spring up about his life.
These days Thomas Keneally is relatively unread in the UK beyond his 1982 Booker winner, Schindler's Ark, which is a great pity, as his attention to historical detail is absorbing and his stories are always stirring. (He did actually make the Booker shortlist three times before his win.) The Daughters of Mars follows two sisters, brought up on their father's dairy farm, as they confront the horrors of World War I after singing up as nurses. The bravery of the men they tend has profound effect upon them.
Remarkably, it's been 61 years since Herman Wouk won a Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny. For decades he has vowed to write a book on the life of Moses and The Lawgiver finally fulfils that promise. His approach is to describe the present-day production of a film on the topic and the efforts of one young woman from an orthodox Jewish background to become involved.
Eduardo Halfon's The Polish Boxer was accompanied by a Pushkin Press publicity sheet wryly claiming that it would be "the best piece Guatemalan autofiction you read this year" - well, how could I resist? Its story of a literature professor encountering a diverse cast of people all searching for something intangible - heritage, beauty, knowledge - is a magical exploration of the human condition.
A Question of Identity is the seventh in Susan Hill's popular series of Simon Serailler detective novels. The Daniel Radcliffe film version of The Woman in Black, her appearance on last year's Man Booker Prize jury (and the furore that their eccentric deliberations provoked) and her combative presence on Twitter have no doubt only increased curiosity about a series whose popularity continues to grow.
Orhan Pamuk's Silent House was first published in his native Turkey back in 1983, but it is only now, six years after his Nobel Prize, that it has been translated into English. A family gather as the threat of a military coup becomes a reality and the generations are revealed to be divided in their loyalties.
Flight Behaviour is Barbara Kingsolver's first novel since the Orange Prize-winning but otherwise opinion-dividing The Lacuna. To be honest, I haven't read it and nothing that I've read online makes much sense, so I'm limited to telling you that it's set in the Appalachians and that her publisher states that it tackles "class, poverty and climate change".
Nobel Laureate José Saramago has one of the beneficiaries of the growth in interest in translated fiction of recent years. Raised from the Ground is the first English translation of a prize-winning novel from 1980. It depicts the early decades of the 20th century as experienced by the peasant folk of Alentejo, the southern Portuguese province in which Saramago was raised, as even two world wars and, between them, the establishment of a republic do little to improve the grim lives of the region's poorest. The book's translator is the multiple award-winning Margaret Jull Costa.
That icon of hard-boiled detective fiction Dashiell Hammett wrote only five novels, the last of which, The Thin Man, was his most successful. The film version starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, went on to be nominated of four Oscars. Hammett wrote the treatments for After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man, the second and third of the five film sequels, and even created an outline for another. Legendary publisher Otto Penzler has rescued these treatments from obscurity and now they are being published for the very first time, with two novellas and the seven-page sketch to be published as The Return of the Thin Man.
The Hunger Angel is the first new title from Herta Müller since she won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature. A young Romanian man survives one of Stalin's merciless gulags but finds, on his return, that his experiences have distanced him from his friends and loved ones.
Norbert Gstrein's Winters in the South, set in Croatia as ethnic tensions are on the rise, sees a woman drawn into an affair with a young solider. Meanwhile in Argentina, her estranged father is trying to raise an army to lead into the incipient conflict. The translation is by the marvellous Anthea Bell, which should be a selling point for any translated fiction enthusiast.
Sila's Fortune by Fabrice Humbert tackles globalisation and immigration through the prism of an attack on a Paris waiter in front of impassive dinners at a luxury restaurant. The choices of all those present prove to have profound consequences. If you liked Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap or Herman Koch's The Dinner, you should give this a try.
The first book by Susie Boyt I read was My Judy Garland Life, which fulfilled the criterion of all great non-fiction by making a topic in which I have negligible interest utterly fascinating. He prose style was honed in fiction and the awkward protagonist of her fifth novel, The Small Hours, matches the warm, charm and wit with which she is described. Suppressed memories of childhood abuse and other reasons for the estranged nature of family members become significant factors in her mission to establish a nursery school based on decidedly progressive ideals.
Finally, Every Short Story 1952-2012 by Alasdair Gray contains precisely that. If you've not read anything by the author of Lanark and Poor Things, you've missed out on one of Scotland's outstanding post-war writers. Russell Hoban and Alan Warner offer some similarities, but essentially he's a one-off and to be treasured.
Very few books are released this month and there's nothing that I feel inclined to recommend, but if you're looking to be amongst the first to read 2013's new titles, it's worth coming instore in the last few days before Christmas: many publishers ship some of their January new titles a little early hoping to pick up sales from last-minute shoppers.
I'll be back with a round-up of what's coming out in the first quarter of 2013 around Christmas, along with my regular top ten fiction titles of the year, the selection of which is proving fiendishly difficult!
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