If I am being totally honest, I always have misgivings about writing the “What To Look Out For” column at the end of the year. Reading those in other publications, and having either catalogues or proof copies to hand, I can spot an adjective which has been taken wholesale from the publicity. It seems bad faith, as a reviewer, to be talking about books I haven’t actually read. Indeed, I have in the past thought that something looks interesting, only for the book itself to be mince. So I suppose this is really just what caught my eye, what piqued my interest, what seemed unexpected or worthy of a longer look. Think of it as like being in a bookshop: you will see a book, look at the inside cover, flick a few pages, see who is puffing it, and sometimes you will stumble across a gem you had no idea existed. Of course, one can go on past form – but that is no guarantee. So, caveat emptor.
It is possible to discern trends. Publishers are scampering to get on-trend titles, whether that is #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #ExtinctionRebellion or analyses of the impact of Covid, Trump and so on. There are certainly plenty to choose from. One title that snagged me straight away was “On Consolation: Finding Solace In Dark Times” by Michael Ignatieff, the former Canadian politician, Booker shortlisted novelist and, fun fact, author of a play about David Hume and James Boswell. It certainly has a zeitgeisty feel.
Polygon started a new historical fiction series last year with Denise Mina’s Rizzio, and it expands next year with two authors who always interest me: Jenni Fagan has Hex, and Alan Warner Nothing Left To Fear From Hell. These are smart commissions – the authors have form, and if the going is good they deserve to romp home. In terms of other “big names”, we have Booker winner Douglas Stuart with Young Mungo. I was tepid about Shuggie Bain, though many people I admire raved about it. I would say that the blurb about it giving “full voice to people rarely acknowledged in literary fiction” (it’s a gay love story between a Protestant and a Catholic in Glasgow) made me wince somewhat. The publicist maybe has overlooked James Kelman, Luke Sutherland, Agnes Owen, Toni Davidson, Janice Galloway and so on.
In terms of those with good track records I will certainly read the new Emily St John Mandel, Sea Of Tranquility; I am delighted that Steve Toltz, one of the funniest writers I have read, is back with Here Goes Nothing and am looking forward to Jan Carson’s The Rapture. Likewise, A Time Outside This Time by Amitava Kumar looks intriguing, and I say that as someone who usually takes a swerve away from books about fictional writers, as does the poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of WE Du Bois and Eloghosa Osunde’s VAGABONDS! If I get a cold, it is reassuring to know that Sophie Hannah, one of the best crime writers currently working and the sacristan to the Agatha Christie franchise has a new psychological thriller, The Couple At The Table. Sally Hinchliffe’s Hare House, a piece of rural gothic, also looks worth taking a punt on.
As for non-fiction, it’s rather more difficult. If you are interested in Vikings there will no doubt be a book about Vikings; if you want books on yogic parenting, then you can probably take your pick. Since I, obviously, like books then I will probably seek out Silvia Ferrara’s The Greatest Invention on writing, Graham Caveney’s On Agoraphobia (on books as the best way to not go out) and definitely Geoffrey Roberts’ Stalin’s Library. By a coincidence there is another book, Playing With Fire by Elizabeth Wilson on Stalin’s favourite pianist. My former colleague, Chitra Ramaswamy, has a new work, Homelands: The History Of A Friendship about her relationship with a refugee from Nazi Germany. I will read it not just from loyalty but because she is a damn good writer. Likewise, Amy Liptrot has another meditative book on nature, dislocation and memory with The Instant.
If there is one book which I would deem essential reading, it is probably Chinny Ukata and Astrid Madimba’s It’s A Continent, with essays on the specific nature of every country in Africa. The minute I saw the synopsis I realised, with more than a little shame, that I knew very little about Chad or Burkina Faso or Guinea-Bissau. This shall be rectified. I am also very curious indeed about a new Penguin Classics title, Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s 1977 Michel The Giant: An African In Greenland, about travelling from Togo to the far north.
One very advance heads-up: Ali Millar has a personal book, The Last Days about growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness in the Scottish Borders. I think it might be, pun intended, revelatory.
Reading the hype is tiring. Logically speaking, when you’re read a dozen claims to this being “the best debut of 2022”, all I can say is 11 of you might be wrong. Who will win the Booker? Dunno. What will be the “word of mouth phenomenon”? No idea. How many good books will disappear like snaw aff a dyke? Indubitably about 80 per cent. But reading is your own adventure. My best wishes for your reading in the coming year. We may be doing a lot of it.
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