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leasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory,” wrote Julian Barnes. Although he was joking about Gustave Flaubert’s carnal desires, Barnes could easily have been describing the sweet sense of excitement felt by book lovers contemplating new pages on the horizon. The new year will bring novels from Kazuo Ishiguro, Sebastian Faulks, Lisa Taddeo, Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen; memoirs from Brian Cox and David Sedaris; and non-fiction releases from George Saunders, Dr Rachel Clarke and Matt Haig. There is even going to be a children’s book about positive thinking from footballer and food-provision campaigner Marcus Rashford.
Here are the highlights of 2021’s publications.
Few works of fiction in 2021 will be as eagerly awaited as Klara and the Sun (Faber, March), the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. This daring book tells the story of Klara, an “Artificial Friend”, who waits for a customer to choose her as their companion. The novel, a tender, sharp look at AI-human relationships, ponders the abiding question of what it means to love.
An early treat is Asylum Road (Bloomsbury, January) by essayist and cultural critic Olivia Sudjic, which is about how the past of Sarajevo refugee Anya comes back to haunt her wedding plans. Jasper Gibson’s The Octopus Man (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, January) explores the world of mental health, a subject that is bound to be visited in myriad ways in 2021.
Ethan Hawke specialises in playing men in torment. With A Bright Ray of Darkness (William Heinemann, February), the four-time Oscar-nominated actor releases his first novel in almost 20 years, a powerful story about a young man making his Broadway debut just as his marriage implodes.
Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed (Bloomsbury, February) is a comic, erotic story about food, sex and religion, from the Women’s Prize-longlisted author of The Pisces. The protagonist, Rachel, is in thrall to obsessive calorie-counting rituals – until she falls in love with a young Orthodox Jewish woman intent on satisfying more than just her culinary desires.
Fiona Mozley, Booker-shortlisted in 2017 for Elmet, has based her second novel, Hot Stew (Hodder & Stoughton, March), around the inhabitants of a Soho brothel and their chaotic fight to halt a ruthless property developer. March also sees the excellent, darkly comic Come Join Our Disease by Sam Byers (Faber).
Two of the UK’s best contemporary writers have novels out in April, and I have high hopes for Jessie Greengrass’s The High House, from new imprint Swift Press, and Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms, from Granta Books.
Whereabouts (Bloomsbury, May), a haunting portrait of a solitary woman, set in Italy, is the new novel from Jhumpa Lahiri, the Booker-shortlisted author of The Lowland. Also in May comes Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle (Doubleday), the tale of a daredevil pilot and a disgraced movie star whose fates collide. Jokha Alharthi’s The Bitter Orange Tree (Simon & Schuster) is the story of an Omani student at a British university, by the author of Celestial Bodies. Another May highlight is Malibu Rising (Hutchinson), Taylor Jenkins Reid’s devastating story of family secrets that spill out at a party one fateful night.
The big fiction event of the autumn is likely to be Jonathan Franzen’s sixth novel, which is the first volume of a trilogy and has the lavish title Crossroads: A Novel: A Key to All Mythologies, Volume 1 (Macmillan). It is the story of the Hildebrandt family and the effects on the children of the joyless marriage between their unstable parents.
Another key autumn release will be Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson, September), which is a love story set in Vienna in 1933, just as Europe is precariously placed between two wars. Faulks returns to Schloss Seeblick, the setting of his novel Human Traces, for the place where the lives of Lena and Anton become fatally entwined.
Hafsa Zayyan’s We Are All Birds of Uganda (Merky Books, January) was held back from summer 2020 because of the pandemic. This moving tale of love and loss, which spans Uganda in the 1960s and the present-day London life of a young high-flying lawyer called Sameer, is well worth the wait.
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr (Riverrun, January) is a lyrical, gut-wrenching tale about the forbidden love between two enslaved men in Mississippi and is already creating a buzz in American literary circles.
I was charmed by Patricia Lockwood’s hilarious memoir Priestdaddy and am looking forward to her debut novel No One Is Talking About This (Bloomsbury, February), a bawdy story about a woman whose life is turned upside down when a viral social media post makes her famous, just as family disaster strikes.
Helen Fisher’s Space Hopper (Simon & Schuster, February) is a nostalgic, time-travelling romp about a daughter who goes back to her 1970s home to find out the truth about her mother, who died when she was eight. Inga Vesper’s atmospheric chiller The Long, Long Afternoon (Manilla Press, February) is about a mother who suddenly vanishes from suburban California in 1959.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton (Quercus, April) follows a fiercely independent young woman called Opal who is trying to make it in the music business – and finds her life thrown into turmoil after she stages a protest against racism that involves the provocative use of a Confederate flag.
Two eagerly awaited debut novels from successful female writers will be those by Daisy Buchanan and Lisa Taddeo. Buchanan’s How to Be a Grown-Up and The Sisterhood struck a real chord with young readers, and her novel Insatiable (Sphere, February) – subtitled A Love Story for Greedy Girls – promises to be a hoot. And fans of Three Women, Taddeo’s compelling narrative about female desire, will be eager to read her first novel, Animal (Bloomsbury, July), which centres on Joan, a self-confessed “depraved” narrator.
Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl (Bloomsbury, June) is a bitingly satirical novel about race and the workplace, in this case a fictional publishing house in New York. Closer to home, Londoner Eva Verde’s Lives Like Mine (Simon & Schuster, June) explores the theme of a school-run affair and the complications and joys it brings to a dual-heritage mother struggling with her intolerant in-laws.
I’m a massive fan of the short-story format and six upcoming collections look immediately appealing. Te-Ping Chen’s Land of Big Numbers (Scribner, February) contains 10 illuminating, sharp stories set in China, penned by a former investigative reporter who worked in Beijing for several years.
Benjamin Myers, author of The Offing, is publishing a debut collection of stories called Male Tears (Bloomsbury, April), written over the past 15 years, which deal with that most fragile and failing thing: the male psyche. Veronica Schanoes’s debut collection is a feminist fantasy collection called Burning Girls and Other Stories (Tordotcom, March), about women at the margins of society.
Chloe Wilson is considered to be a rising star in Australian fiction and her debut collection Hold Your Fire (Scribner, May) is full of unsettling contemporary Gothic tales. Another short-story highlight will be Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (Riverside, June), a collection of tales set in the Midwest, the location for his recent Booker-shortlisted novel Real Life.
It will also be intriguing to see what the nine newly-discovered stories from a young Marcel Proust are like, although they are certain to be full of his usual darkness and melancholy. A collection of them, titled The Mysterious Correspondent (Oneworld, March), comes out just before the 150th anniversary of the birth of the hugely influential French author of Remembrance of Things Past.
George Saunders, author of the brilliant novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is already in the running for the award for the longest title of 2021: his new book of essays for Bloomsbury – out in January – titled A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (In Which Four Dead Russians Give Us a Masterclass in Writing and Life). The combination of Saunders’s piercing mind and the Russian subjects being Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Gogol promises to be a highbrow treat for fans of literature, and a book offering deep insights into storytelling and how narrative functions.
Palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke has followed up her superb Dear Life with Breathtaking (Little, Brown; January), a searing insider’s account of being a doctor during the tsunami of coronavirus deaths. The book spans New Year’s Day to the crisis of April, as NHS workers strove to “bring humanity back to the spaces the virus has stripped bare”. It says everything about her character that Clarke refuses to settle for despair, focusing on the human decency she has seen.
Although a book based around the themes of war, pestilence, famine and death sounds grim, military medical historian Dr Emily Mayhew’s The Four Horsemen (Riverrun, April) is a thoughtful and ultimately uplifting analysis of the unsung heroes of our age, people quietly conjuring solutions to problems that threaten us all. Problems don’t come bigger than our seemingly doomed environment. In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster (Penguin, February), Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, shares what he has learned about how to turn the world around after a decade of studying climate change.
Trusting politicians has become ever harder in the past year – as has having any faith in the statistics they brandish like snake-oil potions. Tom and David Chivers offer an important, entertaining guide to understanding the numbers in the news – and when to be sceptical of them – in How to Read Numbers: A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them), out via Orion in March.
Lots of readers seem perennially fascinated by what drives people to commit murder. In Dangerous Minds: A Forensic Psychiatrist’s Quest to Understand Violence (John Murray Press, June), forensic psychiatrist Dr Taj Nathan uses case studies to offer an insider’s account of what makes up a “psychopath” or “serial killer”.
There’s bound to be interest in The Nature of Middle-earth (HarperCollins, June), a previously unpublished collection of writings by JRR Tolkien, with essays tackling topics ranging from Elvish reincarnation to which characters had beards.
Finally, Olivia Petter has written an exploration of modern dating that shares the title of her popular podcast for The Independent, Millennial Love. Combining memoir with social commentary and anecdotes from celebrities, the book (out in July from Fourth Estate) is a riveting guide to the quirks and anxieties around the modern dating landscape.
Craig Taylor’s splendid oral history of London was a delight. He now tells the story of contemporary New York – a city that was convulsed by a horrifying terrorist attack and has, in recent years, been hit by hurricane, recession, social injustice and the pandemic – through the revealing words of its residents in New Yorkers: A City and Its People In Our Time (John Murray, March).
Judy Batalion has written a fascinating history about a little-known group who took on the Nazis. In The Light of Days: Women Fighters of the Jewish Resistance (Virago, April), Batalion tells the untold story of the “ghetto girls” who carried out espionage missions, bombed German train lines and assassinated Gestapo chiefs. The individual tales of these courageous young women are remarkable.
The troubled history of Zimbabwe, from the colonial exploitation and mayhem of the gold rush up to the 20th-century racism and the despotic rule of Robert Mugabe that followed is the subject of Martin Meredith’s sweeping historical narrative Zimbabwe (Simon & Schuster, September).
Political commentator Peter Oborne’s powerful The Assault on Truth (Simon & Schuster, February) aims to expose the “scale and shamelessness” of the falsehoods of Boris Johnson’s government – which he brands “an epidemic of deceit”.
Jess Phillips is humorous, and reasonably plain-speaking for a modern politician, and in Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics (Simon & Schuster, May), the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley promises to lift the lid on what’s really going on in British politics.
ITV politics showman Robert Peston is not necessarily a man you would immediately link with a zeal for exposing the wrongdoing of our leaders. Perhaps his fictional investigative skills will be more apparent in his debut novel Whistleblower (Zaffre, September), which is about the political intrigue around Whitehall correspondent Gil Peck, whose sister is killed in a suspicious hit-and-run accident.
In Seven Ways to Change the World (Simon & Schuster, June), former prime minister Gordon Brown offers his solutions to the challenges we face in the coming years. Expect thoughtful – although possibly dull – ruminations on subjects such as the impending climate disaster, nuclear proliferation and global financial instability.
Biographies and memoirs
The always highly readable Bryony Gordon has done much to further public discussion about mental health issues and problems such as alcohol addiction. In No Such Thing As Normal (Headline, January), Gordon opens up about her own problems and offers practical advice on subjects such as anxiety, medication, self-image and mindfulness. Another inspiring book about mental health issues is Jake Tyler’s A Walk from the Wild Edge (Michael Joseph, March), in which Tyler talks about his life-threatening depression and the inspiration he found on a 3,000-mile run around the UK.
Joan Didion is always an illuminating writer and Let Me Tell You What I Mean (HQ, February) is a collection of 12 essays about her life that include her musings on a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and her thoughts on a diverse range of people: Nancy Reagan, Martha Stewart and Ernest Hemingway among them. Isabel Allende’s The Soul of a Woman (Bloomsbury, March) is an autobiographical meditation on power and feminism.
I Am a Girl from Africa (Simon & Schuster, April) charts Elizabeth Nyamayaro’s remarkable journey from the small Zimbabwean village of Goromonzi to becoming one of the world’s most celebrated humanitarians.
Sharon Stone has had more than her share of controversies and battles in Hollywood. In her autobiography, The Beauty of Living Twice (Allen & Unwin, April), the star of Basic Instinct reflects on her career and how she rebuilt her life after a massive stroke.
Matt Haig is always a soothing sage – he recently got the ultimate seal of approval when Dolly Parton revealed she was a fan – and the planned summer release of The Comfort Book (Canongate) is sure to be another winner, as he blends philosophy, memoir and self-reflection in a discussion of the inspiring words of philosophers.
Brian Cox is one of the most talented veteran actors around and the malevolent patriarch of Succession is bringing out his debut memoir, published by Quercus and as yet untitled, in October. Cox always has interesting opinions and this memoir could be a true gem of the 2021 calendar.
David Sedaris is invariably a joy and his sardonic, self-deprecating personal tales are a particular delight, which I would recommend as an audiobook treat. His second volume of diaries, A Carnival of Snackeries: Diaries: Volume Two (Little, Brown; October), will be one of the glittering highlights of the pre-Christmas deluge.
The most anticipated thriller of 2021 is likely to be Stephen King’s Later (Titan, March), about a boy called Jamie Conklin whose unusual mental powers could help his struggling single mother and her New York police detective lover as he pursues a deadly killer.
The ideal for any thriller writer is to get a successful series off the ground. Femi Kayode has a chance with his investigative psychologist Dr Philip Taiwo, who is the protagonist of Lightseekers (Raven, February), the start of a new series that begins with the gripping tale of the mystery of three young students who are brutally murdered in a Nigerian university town, killings that are captured on social media.
CJ Carey’s Widowland (Quercus, June) is an inventive feminist dystopian novel set in a 1950s Nazi-ruled Britain. Rose, who works at the Ministry of Culture, is tasked with rewriting literature to correct the views of the past, including making Jane Eyre more submissive and Dorothea Brooke less intelligent.
There are some unusual thriller settings coming this year including Shiver by Allie Reynolds (Headline, January), a thriller based around the world of competitive snowboarding, while Andy Weir, author of the bestselling hit The Martian, is back in interstellar territory for his exciting story about a lone astronaut who has to save the earth from disaster in Project Hail Mary (Del Ray, May). David Peace’s Tokyo Redux (Faber, June) is a tense postmodern noir about the real-life disappearance in 1949 of one of Japan’s most powerful figures.
The President’s Daughter (Century, June) is the sequel to the much-derided The President is Missing, a collaboration by former White House resident Bill Clinton and mega-seller James Patterson. The plot centres on a ruthless assassin out to kill the ex-president’s daughter. Never mind the quality, feel the width of the sales column.