Books to watch out for in 2014

A portrait of Robert the Bruce
A portrait of Robert the Bruce
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For publishers, January always used to be the deadest month, a time to count takings from the Christmas tills, put aside the troublesome business of introducing new books to the market, and quietly hibernate until the first sign of spring.

It started to change about ten years ago. While the biggest names on the publishers’ catalogues are still kept back for the late autumn frenzy, January became a month for experimentation. This was when you started to find books that editors adore but which they weren’t too sure about over at sales and marketing. Books by, for example, foreign writers whose reputation here doesn’t quite match their homeland fame but which might, away from the ever more crowded autumn schedules, find media attention and readers.

EL Doctorow is a case in point. In the US, he is revered for his historical fiction and routinely mentioned when critics speculate about potential Nobel Laureates. Here, we might have seen the films (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate), but few have read his books on which they were based. Not a sure thing, in other words, which is probably why Little, Brown has slotted his latest novel, Andrew’s Brain, into its January list. Fourth Estate will be doing the same with Carthage, by Joyce Carol Oates, that even more prolific titan of American letters.

The younger generation of American stars isn’t neglected next month either: At Night We Walk in Circles (Fourth Estate) by Daniel Alarcon – on both the New Yorker’s and Granta’s lists of best young American novelists – will also be in the bookshops, as will Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens. Advance word on this – and no, not just publisher’s hype – is that it’s even better than Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections: just the sort of novel that might well walk away with next year’s Man Booker in October. If you still need convincing that January is no longer a publishing ghetto, ask yourself this: why else would Doubleday choose it to publish Armistead Maupin’s first novel for four years? In The Days of Anna Madrigal, the 92-year-old transgendered linchpin of his Tales from the City series goes back to the whorehouse she ran away from as a 16-year-old boy. Which, I hope you agree, sounds interesting at least.

Scottish writers offer further proof that January is no longer the publishing doldrums. The latest books by two of our best-selling crime novelists hit the bookshops together – Stornoway writer Malcolm Mackay and Glasgow-born Peter May. Perhaps that’s because people might already get them mixed up: May is, of course, the author of a trilogy set on Lewis, and Mackay has written one about Glasgow. Mackay’s The Sudden Arrival of Violence (Mantle) concludes a trilogy whose first two books have been garlanded by awards, including the one for Scotland’s best crime novel awarded at the Bloody Scotland festival in September. Although his previous Scottish-set books have racked up sales approaching £2 million, May’s latest, Entry Island, is a standalone set on a remote Canadian island.

If you need any more proof of January’s literary liveliness, imagine that you are in charge of publisher’s Hutchinson. After 20 years with Penguin, Helen Dunmore (the first winner, remember, of the Orange Prize) has just signed up with you. In which month are you going to publish her new novel, The Lie? 
But you’re probably ahead of me already …

In other words, the literary year is already on the starting grid, engines running. Later on, the events on a field near Stirling in June 1314 fuel a powerful number of Scottish contenders, starting with Bannockburns, Robert Crawford’s study for Edinbugh University Press on independence and the Scottish literary imagination. In June, Alistair Moffat produces Bannockburn: Two Days That Made A Nation for Birlinn only a month after its launch of James Robertson’s graphic novel Robert the Bruce, illustrated by Jill Calder.

As ever, as the year spins round, we’ll find ourselves reading about a whole host of topics about which right now we are utterly ignorant. Next month, for example, The History Press has a book about British First World War soldier Henry Tandy VC. Like me, you probably didn’t know that he was most decorated soldier on our side or that in 1938, Hitler made a speech in which he proclaimed that Tandy spared his life after the Battle of Marcoing in September 1918. Was it true? How did he live with the knowledge?

At this stage, this is the embryonic form in which still-unpublished books exist, as elevator pitches and unanswered questions. Here’s another example, for The Reckoning, by Patrick Bishop (Collins), about the killing in 1942 of Avraham Stern, leader of the militant Zionist Lehi group. It is, we are promised, “the tale of a man who terrorised Israel, of the man determined to prevent him, and the creation of a cult of martyrdom that destroyed any hope of compromise between Arab and Jew?” Hooked? It it works for me.

But then so does so much else. The biography of an Australian ingenue who had a clandestine affair with our Queen’s dad and assorted Hollywood legends and who died a Russian princess? That’d be Sheila, by Robert Wainwright (Allen & Unwin). Edmund White writing about his Paris years, with walk-on parts for Catherine Deneuve, Yves Saint-Laurent and other assorted members of the French glitterati? That’d be Inside a Pearl, out in February from Bloomsbury. How did Hollywood’s top directors come back from the Second World war and change cinema? Try Five Came Back by Mark Harris from Canongate.

And so the year gets into swing again and our questions get answered. What will it be like, the new novel from Nick Hornby, Ali Smith, Colm Toibin, William Nicholson, Davbid Mitchell? The memoir from Elvis Costello? The short stories from Lydia Davis? The standalone novel by Alexander McCall Smith released for Valentine’s Day? Michel Faber’s first novel for (gulp: can it be?) more 
than a decade. The debut novels from James Naughtie and Kirsty Wark? Talking of which, what will Alain de Botton get right – or wrong – about The News: A User’s Manual? What will those promised new revelations about the downfall of RBS in Ian Fraser’s Shredded turn out to be?

We’ll know the answers soon enough. In the meantime, when it comes, a very Happy New Year to all our readers.