Looking for Lucrezia: A round up of the runners and riders in the good read stakes next year

Sarah Dunant tells a tale of Renaissance Italy through the eyes of Lucrezia Borgia in Blood and Beauty. Picture: Nick Cunard/Writer Pictures
Sarah Dunant tells a tale of Renaissance Italy through the eyes of Lucrezia Borgia in Blood and Beauty. Picture: Nick Cunard/Writer Pictures
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THERE’S hardly anything in print with the sustained optimism of a publisher’s catalogue.

To read them en masse is to risk drowning in both hope and hype: book after book is “brilliant”, “ground-breaking”, “unique” and “unmissable”. And so they float off towards publication date, adrift on a sea of superlatives, each of them needing only one thing to anchor them to reality: a thoughtful, critical book review.

Right now, though, reviews are still a long way off. Publishers are beginning to send proof copies of their offerings for 2013 to the media and the book trade, but most are still under wraps. There’s no way of telling which will live up to their publishers’ great 

With that enormous caveat firmly wedged in place, what can we expect from 2013? What will be the books that open our imaginations the furthest, that most change our perception of the world, challenge our prejudices or bring the past to the most vivid life?

An early contender must surely be William Dalrymple’s The Return of a King, out in February from Bloomsbury. As Salman Rushdie has pointed out, Dalrymple is “that rarity – a scholar of history who can really write”. And in this account of Britain’s first Afghan war, which began in 1839 with the aim of securing the Indian Empire’s north-western frontier against the Russians and ended in 1842 with the annihilation of an entire army, he has found the perfect subject. Drawing on Afghan, Russian, and Indian sources, he tells a truly epic story of imperial ambition and hubris with profound lessons for our own times. Compared to this – Britain’s greatest military defeat in the 19th century – Custer’s Last Stand is an insignificant skirmish. I doubt that I’ll read a better written or more important history book all year.

Yet there’s going to be a lot of competition. In June David Kynaston pushes his landmark social history of post-war Britain nearer to a world that is recognisably our own in Modernity Britain (Bloomsbury) doubtless tracing the roots of Sixties youth culture and multiculturalism in the last years of the Fifties. Elsewhere, there is no shortage of other reinterpretations of the past. In The Tank War (Little Brown, March) Newsnight’s defence correspondent Mark Urban overturns the traditional notion that British tanks were largely ineffective in the Second World War, showing how they more than matched up to the more recognised feats of the German Panzers once they had changed their strategy. And if Downton Abbey still colours your impression of what Britain was like on the cusp of the First World War, Charles Emmerson’s 1913 (Bodley Head, April) could be a useful corrective: it wasn’t, he argues, all about wistful long summer evenings in Edwardian villas, but a year buzzing with bright, optimistic modern ideas and one that marked, for the first time, the emergence of a truly global society. 
Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War (Viking, October) will most likely show where all of that went wrong.

Eric Hobsbawm’s posthumous Fractured Times (Little Brown, April) takes a far wider focus, offering an overview of cultural and political change in the 20th century that is bound to be widely reviewed. Widening the frame still further, in Confronting the Classics (Profile, March) Mary Beard will explain why the world of antiquity still matters, and – no less intriguingly – in Under Another Sky (Cape, June) Charlotte Higgins looks at what Roman Britain meant to those who, from medieval mythographer Geoffrey of Monmouth to WH Auden, subsequently thought about it.

Still too narrow a focus? How about moving away from civilisation altogether? In Kith (March, Hamish Hamilton) Jay Griffith compares childhood in traditional societies – from Papua New Guinea to the Arctic – that she has worked in to the alienated youth of contemporary Britain. Just why, she asks, are our children’s lives so unhappy in comparison? Drawing on five decades of work in New Guinea, Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday (Allen Lane, January) makes a similar point, although extending it far beyond childhood to include such topics as attitudes to the elderly and conflict resolution. If we think we know better than traditional societies, he argues, we are deceiving ourselves.

The subtitle of John Gray’s new book The Silence of the Animals – “On Progress and Other Myths” – suggests that he probably agrees. The new book, out in February from Allen Lane – is billed as a sequel to his Straw Dogs – and argues that there’s nothing separating us from animals apart from our capacity for self-conceit.

If that’s not controversial enough for you, try Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Land of Israel (Verso, February) which attempts to dismantle the Jewish state’s “foundation myth” or Arthur Langford’s The Myth of Martyrdom (Palgrave, January), which claims that suicide bombers do what they do not because of ideology but because they’re mentally ill. On the home front, in City of Gangs (Hodder, August) 
Andrew Davies goes back to the inter-war years to show how Glasgow emerged as Britain’s “Gang City”. Robert Crawford’s On Glasgow and Edinburgh (Belknap Press, February) goes back a lot further and tacks on a lot more – centring on its “treasured rivalry” with the capital. “To love these two places feels like bigamy,” he writes. “It is.”

The centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth prompts two biographies (by Paul Kildea for Allen Lane and Neil Powell for Hutchinson) and there are books about Nijinsky (Lucy Moore, Profile, May) among others, but this is hardly a vintage year for the genre. Instead of the looking at the life stories of great cultural and political figures, we seem more fascinated by those whose story matters more than their achievement.

Ahmed Errachidi is a good example: you mightn’t have heard of him, but in The General (Chatto, March) Gillian Slovo shows how an obscure Moroccan-born London cook was sold into imprisonment at Guantanamo, where he led the prisoners for five years until his innocence was established. It’s the same with John Bingham, 7th Lord Clanmorris: would you be really interested in Michael Jago’s biography if its subject’s job and friendship with John le Carré didn’t allow him to be able to call it The Man Who Was Smiley?

What seems to matter increasingly is the writer’s personal connection to the subject. Geordie Greig’s Breakfast with Lucian (Cape, May) may well not be, at 192 pages, the most comprehensive account of Lucian Freud’s life but its appeal – as, incidentally, with Martin Gayford’s 2010 memoir Man With a Blue Scarf, about sitting for a Freud portrait – comes from its intimacy. For ten years, Greig was one of a coterie of Freud’s friends who regularly joined him for breakfast at a Kensington restaurant in what was in effect his private salon. So here are memories of painting Hockney and the Queen, of gambling, hating his mother, dancing with Garbo and painting Kate Moss naked. What would you rather read – that or a catalogue raisonnée?

That same invisible thread of the deeply personal runs throughout the catalogues. James Lasdun on being stalked (Give Me Everything You Have, Cape, February). Phyllida Law on coping with her mother’s dementia (How Many Camels are there in Holland?, 4th Estate, February). Greg Bellow on father Saul, Maya Angelou on her mother’s rooming house/gambling business, John Jeremiah Sullivan on his sportswriter father, Cheryl Strayed on overcoming grief and loneliness on a 1,000-mile hike: it’s not an endless list, but it’s one marked by some of the year’s finest writing. And even though it’s not a memoir, I’ll shoehorn Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring (Canongate, May) into that list. Plenty of people have written about why writers drink, but Laing’s take on the topic has two further personal edges – one from having herself grown up in an an alcoholic family, and another from making her own roadtrip across America on the tracks of six of its most legendary litarary soaks. She’s an excellent writer too

And so, finally, to fiction. Penguin are jumping up and down about Taiye Selalsi’s Ghana Must Go, (Viking, April), the debut novel from a writer whose work has already been championed by Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. Little Brown are hailing Kevin Maher’s first novel (The Fields, April) as heralding the arrival of “the new Roddy Doyle” (I wonder what the old Roddy Doyle thinks about that?). Viking are insistent that Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath, out in May, “rivals Atonement and The End of the Affair”.

Does it? I can’t say. I haven’t read any of them. And that’s why 2013’s fiction is even more problematic to predict than its non-fiction. James Robertson, for example, is a fine writer whose work I very much admire. But will his next book The Professor of Truth (May, Hamish Hamilton) – surely the most eagerly anticipated novel this year fom a Scottish writer – match the quality of his previous work? Certainly its subject – a bereaved father trying to find out what really happened in the Lockerbie bombing – could hardly be more ambitious or demanding. In what is, for the first six months at least, a relatively quiet year for Scottish fiction, I hope he succeeds.

Quiet, but hardly negligible. February alone has Lucy Ellman’s “most extraordinary work of art to date” (Mimi, Bloomsbury Circus), Christopher Brookmyre’s first SF novel (Bedlam, Orbit) and Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave (Tinder Press), about a father who mysteriously goes missing 
in the long, hot summer of 1976.

By then the year’s fiction is starting to flow. Picador have huge hopes for Jim Crace’s Harvest, Quercus have the first translation of Mikhail Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark (“a novel that has redefined Russian literature”), Hamish Hamilton will be punting Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King, Sceptre will be launching Andrew Cowan’s Birdsong-like Worthless Men, Head of Zeus will be boosting Joyce Carol Oates ultra-dark Daddy Love and Chatto will be launching Deborah Moggach’s Heartbreak Hotel with high hopes after the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. None of them, though, will come with an introduction by Johnny Depp, unlike Fourth Estate’s House of Earth, a newly discovered novel by Woody Guthrie.

After that, fiction’s river is in full spate: March has new novels by JM Coetzee, Javier Marias, Ruth Rendell, Andrei Makine, Karen Russell and Rupert Thomson, whose historical novel Secrecy (Granta) is every bit as much of a change of direction as Karen Campbell’s This is Where I Am (Bloomsbury Circus), the story of a relationship between a Scottish widow and an asylum seeker, which marks a move away from crime fiction. It’s also the month when Granta unveils the 20 writers it has chosen as Best Young British Novelists – a once-a-decade selection with an enviable (or perhaps just self-fulfilling) track record.

April has two fascinating novels from Canongate – Patrick Ness’s breakout adult novel The Crane Wife and Nothing Gold Can Stay, a new short story collection from Ron Rash, whose last one won the Frank O’Connor award, the world’s richest literary prize for the genre. Add the latest from David Sedaris, Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie, Parinoosh Saniee’s The Book of Fate (apparently the best-selling Iranian book of all time), Man Booker shortlisted Moshin Hamid’s How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and stir.

By May, the year’s book festivals are also getting into swing. Any one of them would be lucky indeed to lure John Le Carré, whose novel A Delicate Truth comes out from Penguin a full 50 years after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold first settled down in the warm glow of the bestseller charts. And although Hilary Mantel’s final volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy won’t be with us until 2014, Sarah Dunant could carry the banner for historical fiction with Blood and Beauty (Virago), a story of the Borgias as told through the eyes of Lucrezia. Yet another one I can’t wait for.

But there’s so many, many more. And though they’re all garlanded with so much hype that it’s easy to get cynical, there really is no point in that. Because some books – a small number, admittedly – in the publishers’ catalogues will live up to the claims made for them. They will open minds, stir imaginations and start dreams. And they’re out there, unread, waiting.