Maggie and Me introduced the world to a startlingly clear and honest working class voice, but for his debut novel Damian Barr has chosen to travel thousands of miles from the North Lanarkshire setting of his lauded memoir. You Will be Safe Here tells the stories of two families separated by a century, but symbolically and viscerally connected. The oppression of a South African family rounded into a concentration camp by English soldiers during the second Boer War is echoed in the modern-day story of Johannesburg teenager Willem, who is ‘not turning out right’ and is sent to a brutal training camp to have his too-soft corners sharpened up.
The landscape and vernacular couldn’t be more different from Barr’s own childhood homestead, but the themes he understands so well, and writes about so simply and evocatively, remain: the cruel, isolating experience of being bullied by a knuckle-headed majority; the sweet relief in finding a sympathetic friend among the angry, contemptuous throng. Without melodrama or sentiment, Barr is proving himself a master of show-don’t-tell writing which packs a hefty emotional punch. He seems to do it just by listening, thinking, then letting the words flow. Extraordinary. (Jane Graham)
Out April 4(Bloomsbury, £16.99)
My Sister, The Serial Killer
by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Fresh new voices in the crime fiction genre are very welcome, and there are none more fresh than Oyinkan Braithwaite. This visceral debut, set in the author’s home country of Nigeria, is a darkly funny romp that manages to combine the page-turning qualities of the best thrillers with a serious look at familial and sibling conflict.
It’s also something of a riot, as the narrator Korede flaps around Lagos in the wake of her more beautiful and glamorous sister Ayoola, who has killed three boyfriends in apparent self-defence. When Ayoola shows an interest in a doctor at the hospital where Korede works, the scene is set for a deadly love triangle. Enormously entertaining. (Doug Johnstone)
Out now (Atlantic, £12.99)
by Tracey Thorn
It speaks volumes about the quality of Tracey Thorn’s books that she is no longer ‘pop singer come writer’, but ‘writer and erstwhile pop star.’ Her resolute honesty, quietly modest manner, and the simple eloquence of her writing has seen her stand out among other artists who have made comparable career leaps. Another Planet could be regarded as a sister piece to her paean to growing pains, the touching 2014 autobiography Bedsit Disco Queen.
In this follow-up she returns to the unexciting suburbs which formed the backdrop to that memoir, and revisits the teenage diaries which charted her musical and romantic aspirations as well as tirelessly listing every chart-topper she bought, every book she read (Gatsby; “it’s great!’), and every non-committal boy she snogged. She recalls the common teenage experience of being perennially bored while also falling in love every day – with local lads, with Bruce Springsteen, with London. And, most memorably, she finds an unexpected empathy for the post-war hope behind the spruce gardens, fully carpeted new houses and socially aspirational parents she once scorned. JG
Out February 7(Canongate, £14.99)
by Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly had a deserved breakout success last year with her sixth novel He Said/She Said, and this latest offering looks every bit as compelling as her previous work. The title comes from a Victorian phrase for mental asylums, but the story is set in contemporary Britain where Marianne is forced to return to the home she fled as a teenager.
Her dreams are haunted by the mental hospital she used to live near, and by the things she did when she was a teenager, and returning home is a dangerous thing to do. The strength of Kelly’s writing is the combination of strong, believable characters and ingenious plotting, her brilliantly timed reveals constantly pulling the rug out from under her readers. Exemplary writing. DJ
Out April 4 (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99)
How to Lose a Country
by Ece Temelkuran
Timed to publish just before Brexit launch date in March, this is a scathing analysis of how the contemporary right wing have used populist rhetoric to grab – or, more cleverly, slowly secure – dictatorial power around the world. Temelkuran is a well-known political columnist in her native Turkey; she has also written extensively for European and American newspapers.
She has seen the rise of the authoritarian and polarising President Erdoğan in her own country and has a firm grasp on the direction of travel in the west. Here she highlights trends in political discourse – the infantilisation of language, the phoney idea of ‘real people’ and ‘the real world’, the pitting of one social/racial/religious group against the other – as well as sophisticated election methods which can lead to actual or virtual dictatorships. In terms of potentially upsetting scenes, this is an X rating. In terms of urgent importance, it’s an A*. JG
Out February 7 (Fourth Estate, £16.99)
Mouthful of Birds
by Samanta Schweblin
Her Booker-nominated novel Fever Dream saw critics scrambling for hard-working adjectives to describe its hallucinogenic, distorted atmosphere. Now the intriguing Argentinian writer returnswith an equally intoxicating collection of short stories, full of unforgettable images wrung from the dissolving edges of an interrupted dream.
What is so impressive about Schweblin’s brand of South American magic realism is its distinctive use of a no-nonsense prose style to create an unsettling, Guillermo del Toro-esque wooziness. The world she conjures in these stories is full of bird-eating daughters, vengeful hordes of brightly coloured butterflies and sobbing roadside-abandoned brides lit up in the headlamps of passing cars. Reading to the end might be as close as most readers get to Stockholm syndrome. Go inside, but remember to take regular breaks. JG
Out January 22 (Oneworld, £12.99)
Stroke: A 5% Chance of Survival
by Ricky Monahan Brown
A memoir about having a catastrophic stroke doesn’t have any right to be this funny. This is the debut book from a very promising young Scottish writer, detailing with painful honesty his own stroke and recovery. Set in New York, the book starts with the stroke itself, Monahan Brown struck down the day after losing his high-flying lawyer job.
Doctors gave him a five per cent chance of surviving, but nursed by staff and his girlfriend, he very gradually began to recover. Written with charm and self-deprecating humour, and without an ounce of self-pity, this is a very clear-eyed and weirdly entertaining account of the kind of hardships that countless ordinary people go through all the time. DJ
Out now (Sandstone, £7.99)
by Sinead Gleeson
Collections of essays continue to be undervalued by publishers, so it’s great that this debut book from a brilliant writer and journalist is seeing the light of day this year. Gleeson is better known in her native Ireland than here in the UK, but her writing is eclectic and consummately delivered.
This book promises to deliver a typically wide range of topics: ‘“the body, feminism, nature, art, illness, landscape, film, ghosts, colour, motherhood, ways of seeing”. Gleeson excels at combining personal stories with wider themes, and here she looks at everything from her own personal stories of illness, loss and grief to the lives of famous artists and writers. In a publishing world of bluster and hype, thoughtful and subtle writing like Gleeson’s is very welcome. DJ
Out April 4 (Picador, £16.99)
A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself
by William Boyle
This modern American noir writer was my discovery of 2018, and I gobbled up his novels Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, as well as terrific short-story collection. This new novel is more high-octane than his previous work, and is described pretty accurately in the press release as ‘Thelma & Louise meets Goodfellas’. Brooklyn mob widow Rena makes a terrible mistake and goes in search of family.
Through a series of violent interventions, she ends up on the road with her granddaughter Lucia and a neighbour, former porn star Wolfie. The three women from different generations are each running from something, their lives in constant danger, and their strong characters and endless twists and turns of the plot keep the reader gripped to the end. DJ
Out March 21 (No Exit, £12.99)
by Don Winslow
The first two books in Don Winslow’s Cartel trilogy – The Power of the Dog and The Cartel – are among the finest crime fiction ever committed to the page. Huge, dizzying, sprawling books, they detail with brutal and unflinching honesty the extraordinary violence, corruption and depravity on all sides of the war on drugs in Mexico and beyond.
This final instalment of the story brings the narrative bang up to date, ranging from the slums of Guatemala to the corridors of power in Washington, where a new administration is up to its neck in as much shit as the drug cartels are. Winslow has a poet’s eye, a storyteller’s heart and the bravery to go where other writers wouldn’t dare. DJ
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