Time magazine called George Saunders “the best short story writer in English”, so it’s not surprising that the announcement of a new collection of short stories sent ripples of anticipation throughout the book-loving world (despite five of these stories actually having already made an appearance in The New Yorker). The 60-page titular story that kicks off proceedings is one of the book’s publication virgins, and begins with a thrillingly mystifying paragraph, the bizarre language of which suggests a futuristic or fantastical setting. Saunders has been teaching the craft of the short story at Syracuse University for 20 years; he has honed to perfection the art of locking in his reader within a few sentences.
His own style, however, is far from the consistently grave pondering of Tolstoy; he cannot help being funny and taking gleeful pleasure in undercutting his own carefully constructed scenarios. Liberation Day is a perfect example; its initial, linguistically imposing set-up of an austere community composed of mysterious characters and strange hierarchies quickly gives way to hilariously mundane chatter among the anxious group members. The theme of the individual’s place among contrived or natural communities continues, raising compelling questions about belonging, estrangement, obligation and connection. With the lightest, most playful of touches, Saunders raises big, serious questions about the way we live now, and what new fears and sorrows stalk us. Out on October 18 (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
Another writer whose cult status has collected an awestruck readership, in this case since its inception in the early Eighties (V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, Watchmen) is comic-book writer Alan Moore. A master of the imagination, Moore is celebrated for his ability to combine vast, fully realised alternative realities with sharp social commentary and insight into psychological breakdown. (Todd Phillips’ magnificent movie Joker is heavily influenced by Moore’s dark, intelligent Killing Joke.) This is his first foray into short story writing in a 40-year-plus career, a landmark moment for his fan base. His comics’ panels have however always been punctuated with long think-pieces of prose, so this is not entirely new territory.
Just like George Saunders, Moore has put together nine short stories set in disarming, fantastical worlds gently nudging contemporary reality. His trademark qualities – vividly detailed renderings of alien landscapes, investigations into complex human psyches, plot driven arcs, regular mini-cliffhangers – are all present and happily correct. Better still, the huge heart and romantic streak that has long set him apart from most comics writers has remained intact. The zealots will savour every delightful word. Out on October 11 (Bloomsbury, £20)
Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie won huge acclaim for 2018’s Home Fire, hence the excited anticipation that meets her new novel. Best of Friends traces the 40-year friendship of Zahra and Maryam, 14-year-old schoolgirls growing up in Karachi when we first meet them. Despite their very different backgrounds, the girls have forged a strong bond which they assume will see them through everything life might throw at them; after all, it is 1988, they are blossoming into womanhood, and Pakistan is set to flourish under the leadership of another bright young woman, Benazir Bhutto.
Shamsie tracks the changing nature of the girls’ believable friendship through the decades with the tenderness and likability that made Home Fire so readable. Her characters are warm and rich, and her understanding of, and affection for, popular culture gives her an edge over her peers. Her touch is so light that you hardly notice the nuanced commentary on race, power and class in contemporary Britain which develops subtly but significantly throughout this rewarding novel. Out on September 27 (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
Nick Cave is one of a handful of living musicians whose depth of thinking – intellectual, spiritual – and emotional sophistication warrants a book composed of 40 hours of rabbit-hole interviews. Where this format might have resulted in a few hundred pages of platitudes posing as insights (there are many published examples I am too polite to name), in the case of Cave, there is genuine food for thought here. Journalist Seán O’Hagan effectively mines the deepest and sometimes darkest reaches of Cave’s perpetually curious and creative mind, and it is touching just how frank Cave endeavours to be. The interviews cover a lot of ground – musical history, family background, Cave’s changing ideas and beliefs, and his relationships with the fans who write long, deeply personal letters to him. He is also a very funny guy, with a droll sense of humour that runs throughout the often sombre subjects covered.
Cave is a serious person with profound things to say; he has spent much time, since he was a child, trying to figure out how the world, the mind and the heart work together, and whether his own responses fit the social brief. He is widely read and highly informed, and blessed with a talent for expression and an unusually open mind. His heartaches since he was a rebellious young turk fronting the Australian punk band The Birthday Party are well documented, most notably the sudden accidental death of his 15-year-old son Arthur, a loss one can’t help feeling weighs heavily throughout this book. This is a wonderful read, a revealing, illuminating, educational study of one of the most free and original artists of our time. Out now (Canongate, £20)
They are not obvious bedfellows but this, the fourth book dedicated to Lucy Barton’s life as a novelist, mother of daughters and bereaved wife, has much in common with Nick Cave’s confessional. Strout’s creation, beloved of her legion of devotee readers, is older, lonelier and more philosophical than when we first met her six years ago, and her reflections on her past choices and marriages have taken on a more pensive tone, having navigated an unknowable world which “takes its swings at us”.
Lucy by the Sea picks up immediately from where Strout’s last novel – the currently Booker shortlisted Oh William! – left off, with Lucy and her ex-husband William taking a short trip to the coast of Maine. Due to the pandemic, which takes away an old friend early on, the planned weeks turn into unplanned months, during which we track Lucy’s increasingly sorrowful mood as the virus impacts upon family relationships and transforms previously upbeat, outgoing personalities into fearful husks. I loved Oh William! but wondered if there was much left for Lucy to say. Oddly, the shock of the pandemic has given Strout many new things to ponder, and in the end she has written an even better novel than the great one which preceded it. Out on October 6 (Viking, £14.99)
Those of us who look forward to her multi-award-winning columns for The Guardian need no introduction to the brilliant, zeitgeist-skewering Hyde. We are often told that a newspaper writer is terrifically funny, only to find that the writer in question is witty in a Radio 4 panel quiz way – astute and informed but not exactly Billy Connolly. Hyde is different; the knock-out barbs which bestow upon self-fixated, incompetent, morally bankrupt politicians all the dignity of badly stitched glove puppets come with proper snorty bellyache laughs. This comprehensive collection of her writing from 2016 to the present is not just an absolute joy to read, it is also a reminder that the genius comedy moments come with true exasperation and occasional despair as a good soul loses faith in an increasingly inhumane world. Out on October 6 (Guardian Faber, £20)
For those of us who devoured Greer’s Pulitzer-winning novel Less, this is an unexpected gift. The first instalment introduced us to the hapless, rather pathetic Arthur Less (if like me, you are allergic to cheap puns, rest assured; the obvious ground for word play is ploughed with wit and genuine pathos). Less is a novelist with ambition and mild success, desperately seeking fulfilment and peace of mind. Sadly, his relationship with his beloved Freddy, the frustrated narrator of this book, suffers under the auspices of his tendency to respond to character-testing life challenges by running away with all the nobility of Monty Python’s ironically named knight, the unheroic scaredy-cat Brave Sir Robin.
Less is a travailed traveller whose picaresque adventures are, in truth, flights from pending threats or awkward situations. This follow-up sees him respond to the death of an ex-lover by fleeing from Freddy and California to his birthplace in middle America. He is not a swashbuckling buccaneer, but neither is he the butt of a joke. He cuts a sympathetic, melancholy figure with a capacity for kindness, hope and romance. It’s this evidence of his inventor’s sympathy for his creation that makes this very funny novel stand out from its peers like Venus’s starlight. Out now (Little, Brown, £16.99)
The sweet-smelling Cadbury’s factory which gave the small suburb of Birmingham its name (“dreamed into being by chocolate”) has loomed large in a number of Coe’s novels; he was born just a few miles from the village, and Bournville’s symbolism as a beacon of pride for the area has long permeated his work. The title is not the only aspect of this novel which has an almost mystical significance; by pure chance, it is overwhelmingly prescient. Tracking the lives of an ordinary Birmingham family, it sets off from VE Day in 1945, then uses landmark royal occasions as chapter-heading pit-stops – the 1953 coronation, Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981, Diana’s funeral in 1997. Everything we saw on television last week is there: sharp-elbowed crowds jostling for hotspots outside Buckingham Palace, arcane pomp and ceremony dividing the nation into scornful republicans and vehement traditionalists, ephemeral public outpourings of grief for figureheads the mourners never knew, but felt inexplicably close to. This has the unsettling effect of Coe being one of the most eloquent commentators on the Queen’s death and funeral before they actually happened.
Bournville does not herald a great departure from Coe’s customary evocation of the habits and challenged bonds of an ever-adapting family set against the whirlwind of British history. But if it ain’t broke, why try to fix it? This is another eminently readable Coe, full of believable characters and fizzing dialogue. And it couldn’t be more timely. Out on November 3 (Penguin Viking, £20)
Best-selling author and comedian James Acaster describes himself as “a phenomenal teacher, a terrific guru, a constant inspiration to many”, and who am I to question this carefully considered assessment? He certainly made me laugh out loud as he detailed the emotional rollercoaster that characterised his departure from social media in 2019 – his divorce from “a polymorphous relationship with multiple partners who are all doing your head in”.
Acaster gently leads his presumedly grateful readers – or “chumps” as he affectionately calls us – through a painful break-up into a new, liberated world. Strap on for the fun-filled ride, and don’t be surprised to come upon some genuine insight about modern communication along the way. Out now (Headline, £20)
Bonsai was first published in Zambra’s native Chile in 2006, and the great man has written many exceptional novels since. The reviews of this early novella were mouthwatering, but we had to wait 16 years for Megan McDowell’s exquisite translation to be published in Britain. Reader, it is worth the wait. This story of two lovers constantly sizing each other up, trying to work out what they want out of life and what kind of people they are, is a touching and insightful study of young love. It has many of Zambra’s staples – his askance humour, his singular, prescient vision, his meandering, never dull, trains of thought, his often very funny uses of street slang and slaying insults. There are few living writers I enjoy reading as much as Alejandro Zambra. If his work is not yet known to you, I compel you to get stuck in to his back catalogue. And Bonsai, finally so easy to get hold of, is an ideal place to start. Out now (Fitzcarraldo, £9.99)
The melodramatic Hammer House meets Tales of the Unexpected style cover of this debut horror novel is an excellent scene-setter for a story about the ultimate mother-in-law from hell, a spiteful scene-stealer who uses every tool at her disposal to control her son’s life. This includes taking her own life and flooding him with depression. Hogarth knows how to write an elegant sentence, but she is also able to summon a genuinely frightening atmosphere and make salient plots about grief and loss, sometimes with humour, sometimes with poignancy. A surprise treat. Out on October 6 (Atlantic, £14.99)
Writer Robin McLean gave up a career in law to literally potter in the woods of Alaska, and now lives in Nevada, where she founded the Ike Canyon Ranch writer’s retreat. So it makes sense that her short stories show an acute understanding of all kinds of American psyches, as well as a tender empathy for those constantly alert to the dangers of falling between the cracks. There are shades of Annie Proulx and Denis Johnson in this collection, which begins with the desperately sad and beautifully written But for Herr Hitler, tracing a young couple’s journey from carefree daydreams to the most biting of realities. These imaginative, poetic stories overflow with compassion and should seal McLean’s flourishing reputation as a writer of great heft. Out on October 18 (And Other Stories, £11.99)
With a quality trajectory the opposite of most debut novels, Khalid’s story of three adopted brothers from three different countries (Nigeria, Korea and the youngest Youssef’s ‘unspecified Middle Eastern’ nation) starts well and then gets better. Once the initial backdrop of this brand new American family, and Youssef’s imaginary companion, Brother, has been established, the drama picks up dynamic pace. The boys’ stern, distant father hits them with a whopping culture shock when he moves to Saudi Arabia, forcing them to follow him into an alien culture which proves a hostile environment for Youssef.
This wildly ambitious novel seeks to break new ground in big-issue territory like provenance, race, class, birth and rebirth. It is occasionally overwritten and a little overwrought, but that it succeeds in some of its lofty aspirations is impressive. To do so while creating memorable characters is even more of a feat. Take note of Zain Khalid’s name; great things may be to come. Out now (Grove Press, £14.99)
It has long rankled with me that the wise, lyrical and politically visionary Roth is so often noted in terms of his friendship with the feted Stefan Zweig – a fellow Austrian writer exiled in the run-up to the Second World War and a splendid writer but, IMHO, the lesser talent of the two. At best the wide-ranging Roth is usually described as author of The Radetzky March; it’s a great novel, but Roth contributed so much more.
Thankfully, with Endless Flight we finally have an English language biography of Roth. And biographer Pim is worthy of the mammoth task at hand, chronicling the complex story of Roth’s ultimately tragic life with sensitivity, intelligence and some serious and revelatory research. He also conveys the weighty profundities in Roth’s writing and the angry passions, bitter indulgences and miserable sorrows which drove it, though in this he is well aided by Roth’s intimate letters. It’s a shame we’ve had to wait more than 80 years for such an important literary biography, but hey, better late than never. Out on October 6 (Granta, £25)
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