We pick the best fiction and non-fiction due to be published this autumn, from James McBride’s exuberant short stories through to a newly discovered Second World War diary by the late Iris Origo
Fall into a good book: autumn reads
The Sun has yet to set on summer, but already publishers are setting out their stalls and advertising literary wares for the year’s remaining months. Some promised titles remain unknown quantities, either shrouded in secrecy or still to be completed. Will the first volume of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy be another phantasmagorical wonder with the same power to enchant and transport as the first instalment in the bestselling His Dark Materials series? Will Ali Smith’s Winter equal its predecessor Autumn and bring seasonal cheer? And can Dan Brown’s Origin break tradition and be anything other than toe-curlingly awful?
Fortunately, most new books have been available for preview. Here are some of the biggest, most-absorbing or simply most-interesting fiction and non-fiction titles to see you through from now until December.
With Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck re-establishes herself as one of Europe’s most intriguing literary talents. It was a timely novel when originally published in the author’s native Germany in 2015; as the refugee crisis continues, unresolved, it retains – sadly but sharply – its topical edge.
Richard, a former classics professor and widower, spends his retirement immersed in a mundane routine, tormented “not by time filled with pointless love but by time itself”. On a stroll through Berlin, he encounters a group of African refugees staging a hunger strike. Unable to turn his back on them, Richard visits their shelter, learns their culture and listens to their tragic plight.
In doing so, he discovers a fresh purpose and reconsiders his own position in a once-divided city. What could have been a strident, tub-thumping rant is instead a subtle, thought-provoking meditation on race and belonging.
Four years after winning a National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird, James McBride returns with Five-Carat Soul, a collection of exuberant short stories. Each tale features singular voices, difficult predicaments and unexpected outcomes.
A “drafty, ancient-looking” vintage-toy dealer stumbles upon the find of a lifetime – but is the seller all he is cracked up to be?
A child of mixed race believes he is the son of Abraham Lincoln. A doctoral student uncovers a Christmas war story. A lion in a zoo ruminates on his captivity, puzzles over human nature and learns about the ways of the world. “Real love ain’t got to do with species. Real love lies in a creature’s heart.”
McBride’s diverse cast also includes fiery preachers and young hoodlums, street-band musicians and soldiers, a boxer and a president, plus The Gatekeeper, the Fish Man Angel and the mighty Dr Skank. Their language crackles and their exploits entrance.
Nicola Lagioia makes his English-language debut with a novel that won the Strega Prize, Italy’s most-prestigious literary award, making him the new Italian author to watch. Ferocity comes pitched as a cross between Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.
After a tense, atmospheric opening scene in which a young bruised, bleeding, naked woman staggers along a moonlit highway, Lagioia pans out and brings in her brother and his relentless quest to get to the bottom of her tragedy. Part in-depth family drama, part up-close depiction of societal corruption, this novel leaves a mark.
John Banville employed his Benjamin Black nom de plume when he ventriloquised Raymond Chandler in his Philip Marlowe continuation novel The Black-Eyed Blonde. In his latest novel, Banville channels Henry James, but has opted to work under his own name. It’s an interesting decision, but more significantly, it’s an audacious project. James’s exquisite 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady ends ambiguously, with the fate of its beautiful, headstrong, cruelly deceived heroine Isabel Archer up in the air. In Mrs Osmond, Banville picks up the threads of where James left off and weaves them into a rich new work, one that adds fresh dimensions and necessary resolution.
After deliberating her future in London, Isabel heads to Rome to confront her duplicitous husband. But is she after reconciliation or revenge? Banville impresses with his customary lyrical grace and rare emotional depth. This isn’t cheap pastiche; it is fond homage, carried off with panache and precision. James would surely approve.
November sees the publication of Richard Flanagan’s first novel since his 2014 Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Based partly on Flanagan’s experience as a fledgling author, First Person tracks the wrong moves and blind panic of a ghostwriter haunted by his subject. As Kif Kehlmann races to complete the memoir of Siegfried Heidl, Australia’s most-notorious con man, before the “criminal celebrity” stands trial, he struggles to make sense of a life story comprising a catalogue of evasions, half-truths and all-out tall tales – Heidl being not so much “a self-made man as a man ceaselessly self-making”. Flanagan’s blackly comic novel shines a searing light on two different men buckling under pressure, and at the same time grapples with two pertinent concerns – who we purport to be and who we actually are.
Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 is a captivating new interpretation of Victorian Britain in all its splendour and squalor. David Cannadine, a professor of history at Princeton University, makes a valiant attempt at what he calls “historical resurrection and scholarly resuscitation” – reanimating the British 19th century.
His book covers sweeping and tumultuous political, social and economic developments, revolutions in transport and huge leaps forward in science. But Cannadine argues that while Britain, the master empire-builder, was the dominant global force, it was also a country whose people were racked with doubt and insecurity about themselves – and their values and achievements. Cannadine explores these “contradictions of progress” with authority and brio.
Martin Amis, the novelist, continues to divide readers. Amis, the journalist, can rile and provoke, but more often than not, his discursive prose – essays, articles, reviews and reportage – stimulates and entertains. The Rub of Time is a collection of non-fiction pieces from the 30 years that does just that. Like Amis’s previous compilation, The War Against Cliché, the writing is charged not just with bold thought but also original phrasing. The book covers a wide range of topics, from politics to literature to sport to travel. Its eclectic subjects include lifelong literary heroes (Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin), erstwhile cultural icons (Princess Diana, John Travolta, Diego Maradona) and a current bête noire (Donald Trump, “insecurity incarnate”, resplendent in his “cornily neon-lit vulgarity”). Particularly revealing are the sections in which an unarmed Amis replies to readers’ questions; especially affecting is the 11-page tribute to his fallen friend Christopher Hitchens.
In her latest literary appreciation, acclaimed biographer Jenny Uglow turns her attention to Edward Lear, examining his eccentric character, zany work and eventful life. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, Mr Lear maps a difficult childhood, years of foreign travel in Europe, the Levant and India, and a number of complicated relationships. A unique artist emerges: a fine painter of birds and animals, a playful cartoonist and an inventive writer who took delight in coining neologisms and penning nonsense prose and poetry such as The Owl and the Pussycat. Uglow dissects this nonsense and shows it is not inconsequential froth, but “full of joys, shocks, rule-breaking freedoms and assaults”.
Russian-American dissident-journalist Masha Gessen has made a name for herself as a fearless critic of Vladimir Putin and a champion of those who have stood up to protest against his autocratic rule. In The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, she focuses her gaze on four young Russians, some “regular”, some “extraordinary”, but all born in the 1980s as the Soviet Union began to fall apart. We follow their lives over the course of 30 years, from the optimism of glasnost to the clampdowns and crushed liberties of the present, and experience what it was “to grow up in a country that was opening up and to come of age in a society shutting down”. This is a stunning, if at times sobering, account of personal and political upheavals.
Iris Origo is best known for War in Val d’Orcia, a vivid chronicle of rural life in Tuscany during the Second World War. Almost 30 years after her death comes the publication of A Chill in the Air, a second, newly discovered war diary; a kind of prequel that deals with Origo capturing the mood of uncertainty in Italy in the run-up to the outbreak of the conflict.
Origo – a British-born biographer and writer who settled in Italy – sifts rumours, news reports and propaganda, recording the voices of Italians from Roman aristocrats to Tuscan peasants. To this, Origo blends in her own hopes and fears, views and reflections, keen-eyed observations and perspicacious analysis. The result is an illuminating journal of a fraught time, by a remarkable individual.