Dive into 2020 with our picks for spring's best books
Hilary Mantel, William Gibson, Deborah Orr, and more: The Big Issue's books team cherry picks the best new releases coming to a bookshop near you by spring.
by: Jane Graham, Chris Deerin, Kerry Hudson, Dani Garavelli, Stephen Bush, Doug Johnstone
19 Jan 2020
Jane Graham, The Big Issue’s books editor
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such a Fun Age is the (wonderfully titled) debut novel of the sparky and original short story writer, Philadelphia-based Kiley Reid. This story, of self-consciously super-woke feminist blogger Alix and her mission to avenge the young black babysitter erroneously accused of kidnapping Alix’s white daughter, has a life and spirit which raises it above many of the current American fictions treading similar territory. The slang-heavy dialogue between the black female twentysomethings is authentic and intoxicating, full of funny retorts and swift wisecracks. The quiet rage and often suppressed tenderness beneath them is elegantly divulged. It’s a compelling take on white guilt, social privilege andshared/unshared female experience. But more than that, it’s a gripping, edgy page-turner with a cinematic eye for detail.
Out now (Bloomsbury, £12.99)
Weather by Jenny Offill
Jenny Offill made a huge splash with Dept. Of Speculation, her 2015 debut novel tracking the decline of a marriage from heady lovers’ dream to disappointment and regret. If you haven’t read it, you should; there’s a reason its many fervent fans still rave about it. It’s follow-up, Weather, is in a similar vein; a dissection of romantic and familial relationships, expressed through a flow of fragmented streams of consciousness. Librarian Lizzie, already an unofficial therapist within her circle of family and friends, takes on the job of answering the mail of a prominent podcaster, from which vantage point she gets a clear view of what’s troubling the minds of catastrophists over the country. Perfect territory for Offill’s ideas about zeitgeist fears and how we tackle them individually.
Offill’s form, in which the written prose operates like a lightning rod for passing thoughts – some profound, some prosaic – might have been irritating and obstructive in less expert hands. But she does it with such pleasing ease it seems like the most natural and obvious direct line into the human mind – why force the messy way we engage with the world into contrived, constructed things like paragraphs? Terrific, immersive writing.
Out on February 13 (Granta, £12.99)
The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
Susannah Cahalan’s The Great Pretender is a gripping investigation of Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan’s 1970s undercover mission to expose the unreliable measuring and labelling of madness in American asylums. Rosenhan’s experiment involved secretly embedding a team of ‘pseudo-patients’ into institutions, all faking symptoms of mental illness. His revelations about the asylums’ misdiagnosis and mistreatment had a seismic effect, triggering a widespread loss of faith in psychiatry and mental health care. Cahalan, whose own misdiagnosis of schitzoaffective disorder was the subject of her previous bestseller Brain on Fire, reveals a long and alarming list of fraudulent reporting in Rosenhan’s work, including manipulation of data, contrived ‘proof’ and even invented researchers. She makes a compelling argument for a reassessment of modern- day assumptions about mental health. No wonder journalist and author Jon Ronson has praised this “wonderful, important” book.
Out now (Canongate, £16.99)
The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin
It’s hard to believe that The Unpassing is a debut novel, so confident and pitch-perfect is Chia-Chia Lin’s portrayal of an immigrant Taiwanese family trying to settle into their new Alaskan life. Lin conjures up a compelling mystery – a young daughter’s sudden fatal illness – via a cast of quirky protagonists so believable and enchanting that they dance around the page from the first chapter. Debuts often suffer from being over-written, busy with too many unnecessary adjectives, too much exposition. Lin’s novel has none of these traits; whether through constant discipline or sheer talent, the graceful sentences flow, the characters grow. Delightful notions arise without a hint of enforcement or sentimentality. There is a strong commentary on the myth of the American dream, but most of The Unpassing’s allure is emotional, simply because Lin makes the reader care.
Out on January 16 (Virago, £14.99)
Gravity is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty
Lovers of the uplit phenomenon Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine are likely to enjoy Jaclyn Moriarty’s Gravity is the Thing. It stands above many in the rather contrived/marketed uplit genre as, like Eleanor Oliphant, it carries a message of hope while not running scared from genuinely difficult realities which can’t be easily resolved. Likeable, sensitive single mother Abi is haunted by the disappearance of her beloved brother when she was a teenager, and is moved by a need for answers to follow up an anonymous promise to bring contentment to her life. Yes, it’s a little trite in places, but there is also some lovely writing and a very touching conclusion. Marian Keyes has declared it her favourite book of all time.
Out now (Allen & Unwin, £14.99)
Here we Are by Graham Swift
Literary stalwart Graham Swift follows up his excellent Mothering Sunday with Here We Are, a typically sure-footed depiction of the fractious relationship between three 1950s end-of-the-pier entertainers. Now 70, Swift has been turning out literature of wit, intelligence and insight for a remarkable 40 years, and never having chased ‘frontline reporter of the zeitgeist’ status like some of his peers, has never lost his footing. He tells simple, truthful stories about what feel like real people, and rarely disappoints. Here We Are is a welcome addition to a proud legacy.
Out on February 27 ( Scribner, £14.99)
Any new William Gibson novel is a major event for me. His latest, Agency, which emerges this month, sees the great author of Neuromancer and many other dystopian/speculative/cyberpunk classics taking us back to an alternative 2017. Hillary Clinton is in the White House and Brexit never happened. The story is described as a sequel/prequel to his last book, 2014’s The Peripheral, and involves an “app-whisperer”, plus some AI-style time-tinkering in a post-apocalyptic London a century from now. All sounds very Gibsonian, which can only be a good thing.
On the politics front, John Bercow releases his autobiography, Unspeakable. As Speaker, Bercow took that venerable office into the headlines and kept it there, in the process becoming one of the most influential public figures of the past decade. He is mischievous, funny, fearless and hugely pompous, and one hopes all of these characteristics will find their way into a book that spills the dirt on an extraordinary parliamentary era.
Agency by William Gibson is out on January 23 (Penguin, £18.99), Unspeakable by John Bercow is out on February 6 (Orion, £20)
The first two books on my TBR list are from two brilliant women. The first, The Shame Game: Overturning the Toxic Poverty Narrative by journalist and author Mary O’Hara seeks to dispel the myth, helpful to many in justifying austerity or simply looking away, that poverty is the fault of those suffering through it. O’Hara, who has lived experience of poverty, is a fine writer with a true skill for getting to the heart of the matter and in this book she seeks insights from the real experts – those living in poverty now.
The second book is Kirsten Innes’s Scabby Queen, the story of a starlet turned activist’s uncompromising life and death told by the people she has left behind. Because it’s coming from Innes, I’m expecting feminism explored in its full complexity, prose that sings off the page and a story that sinks its hooks right into me. I can’t wait!
The Shame Game: Overturning the Toxic Poverty Narrative by Mary O’Hara is out on February 27 (Policy, £12.99), Scabby Queen by Kirsten Innes is out on April 30 (HarperCollins, £12.99)
Deborah Orr’s Motherwell, a memoir of a working-class childhood lived in the shadow of the Ravenscraig steelworks in Lanarkshire, was already much-anticipated by fans of her journalism. But her untimely death from cancer shortly after the first proofs had been sent out adds a sharp poignancy to this tale of voluntary exile, and to the fraught mother-daughter relationship at its core.
Hilary Mantel knows how to create a buzz. The length of time it has taken her to produce the third part of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, The Mirror & the Light, has guaranteed its publication will be the literary event of the year. Having won the Man Booker prize for Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, the pressure is on her to deliver a worthy finale, as Henry VIII’s fixer moves inexorably towards the scaffold. So far her rendering of Cromwell’s final years has remained a closely-guarded secret, but her publisher Nicholas Pearson assures us it is “as daring and thrilling as its predecessors”.
Motherwell by Deborah Orr is out on January 23 (Orion, £16.99), The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel is out on March 5 (4th Estate, £25)
There are some books that you buy as presents: not for the person you give them to, but for yourself, because you want to talk about them with somebody. The novels of Emily St John Mandel, who made her name with her fourth book, Station Eleven, a moving story about Earth after a pandemic, tend to be that type of read.
Her works cross genres and subjects, but what they have in common is a huge desire once you put one day to have a conversation about them. Mandel uses fantastical topics – a pandemic, organised crime, abduction – to explore the everyday struggles of life, in gripping and thought-provoking fashion. I’m looking forward to her next work, The Glass Hotel, a story about the global rich, and will buy at least two copies: one to read, and one to give away.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel is out on March 24 (Pan Macmillan, £14.99)
One book I’m really looking forward to is To the Lake by Kapka Kassabova. The author lives in the Highlands but was born in Bulgaria and raised in New Zealand. Her diverse backlist includes essays, novels and poetry, but her last book, 2018’s Border, was a multi-award-winning non-fiction look at the complex geopolitical and social context of her birthplace. In To the Lake she visits two ancient lakes where her grandmother was raised between North Macedonia, Albania and Greece, and talks to locals to examine the ways in which the complications of geography and politics can influence personal attitudes for everyday people.
To the Lake by Kapka Kassabova is out on February 6 (Granta, £14.99)