Books to look out for in the next six months

From 'oikophilia' to Snowball Earth, by way of poetry and a kaleidoscope of fiction



Michael Cunningham's The Hours revisited Virginia Woolf to stunning effect; By Nightfall (Fourth Estate) is his latest attempt to put art and beauty at the centre of consciousness, combining literary reference with sensuous observation. His narrator is a Manhattan art dealer distracted from middle age and marriage by the dangerous pull of his young brother-in-law.

Adam Mars-Jones becomes an early contender for jacket blurb of the year with Cedilla (Faber), the second volume in a projected trilogy which combines the joys of miniaturism with the scope of epic. "None of the reviews of the first volume," we are told, "explicitly compared it to a coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars, but that was the drift of opinion." May book two, in which hero John Cromer ambles into adulthood, be as tasty.

Other titles to look out for include We Had it So Good, by Orange-winner Linda Grant (Virago), charting the ups and downs of the baby boomer generation. And there's an extraordinary debut from Ida Hattemer-Higgins, whose The History of History (Faber) follows her young American heroine, a lonely expat in Berlin, on a journey into madness on the trail of family secrets and Nazi ghosts. For those with a Stieg Larsson-shaped hole on their bedside table, fellow Scandinavian Jo Nesbo's star has been rising for some time: in The Leopard (Harvill Secker), Oslo cop Harry Hole is pitted against a new killer.
Justine Jordan


Jackie Kay's Fiere (Picador) probes the complexities of her shared African and Scottish identity and draws on old and modern Scots – fiere is the old Scots word for friend – as well as poems inspired by Ibo dialect and African and European art (read a poem, page 16). Playing the Human Game, by Alfred Brendel (Phaidon). The great pianist has long been more than a part-time poet, and now comes a collected edition of his work, in which his wryly humane observations on music and life reveal themselves via surrealist squibs.
Nicholas Wroe


The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food, by Lizzie Collingham (Allen Lane). Food historian Lizzie Collingham does far more than repeat clichés about how Britons were never healthier than when they were "digging for victory". Instead she goes backwards to show how Germany's ambition for self-sufficiency in food production was a decisive factor in going to war in the first place, while the allies spent it spectacularly mismanaging food resources in India, Africa and China.
Kathryn Hughes

Natural history

Incoming: Or, Why We Should Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Meteorite, by Ted Nield (Granta). Thirty years have passed since father-and-son scientists identified a strange layer of iridium, an element rare on Earth, right in the rock strata where the cretaceous stops and the tertiary era begins. Bingo! Maybe a huge asteroid crashed into the planet and wiped out the dinosaurs? Could it happen again?
Tim Radford


How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, by Eric Hobsbawm (Little, Brown). The great historian of the left looks at the spectacular rise and fall of Marxism over 162 years since Das Kapital was written, and asks if it is really defunct, as many have claimed since the fall of Soviet communism, or if it might still have resources to offer to our struggling capitalist world.
Claire Armitstead


Half Brother, by Kenneth Oppel (David Ficking). Age: 11+. Having a chimp for a half-brother raises all kinds of issues. Ben does not want his teen years spoilt by his research scientist parents' experiment to raise a chimp as a human. But Zan is a sweet baby, and soon Ben is captivated by him. What will happen when the experiment comes to an end? A thought-provoking story about families and ethical responsibility.
Julia Eccleshare



Nicole Krauss follows her acclaimed The History of Love with Great House (Viking), the intertwined confessions of disparate characters – a woman writer in hiding from the world, a man investigating his wife's hidden past, an antiques dealer reassembling family heirlooms stolen by the Nazis – whose lives are linked by the imposing, many-drawered desk that passes through their hands. Krauss's narrative addresses memory, love and loss; how our yearnings are enacted down the generations.

The under-appreciated Carol Birch may have her moment this year with Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate), a vividly written tall tale of 19th-century adventure which takes its young hero from the banks of the Thames to the South Seas – in search of a dragon.

2011 sees several books set on northerly islands; Sarah Moss's Night Waking (Granta), about a young mother on the Hebrides haunted by letters from centuries before, is the second novel from this promising new voice. Closer to home, Tim Binding satirises our recent inglorious past, from Thatcher to Blair, in The Champion (Picador), a portrait of a smalltown monster. Notable debuts include The Cry of the Go-Away Bird, by Andrea Eames (Harvill Secker), in which a young white girl in 90s Zimbabwe sees her privileged world fall apart, and A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness (Headline), a romp through magical academia hoping to rival Elizabeth Kostova. Those looking for some geo-politics with their crime fiction should turn to Elmore Leonard's Djibouti (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), a "Middle-East western on water" about modern-day piracy. JJ


Torchlight, by Peter McDonald (Carcanet). This fifth collection from Oxford-based Ulsterman McDonald brings together Irish, British and European themes – "ancient and modern, Catholic and Protestant" – as well as new translations of Homeric hymns. NW


Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People, by Philip Ball (Bodley Head). In moments of moral panic over heart transplants, test-tube babies and embryo stem cell experiments, today's biologists are accused of "playing God". But humans have been playing with the idea of playing God for more than 1,000 years. Witness golems, Frankenstein, Brave New World and the robots of Karel Capek. Ball, who started from a solid base of science writing, promises to follow a thread from mythological Daedalus to the fantasy of human clones. TR


Edgelands: Journeys into England's True Wilderness, by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape). This celebration of our post-industrial landscape explores "those unplanned, unwatched strips of land between cities and the countryside, full of car crushers' yards, gas-holders and retail parks". Just as the Romantics turned to previously shunned mountains and ruins in search of the sublime, the two poets promise strange beauty in mobile masts and business parks. JJ


Bird Cloud, by Annie Proulx (Fourth Estate). Proulx's first non-fiction book in 20 years combines family history with natural history, as she hymns the unspoilt Wyoming wilderness of wetlands and prairie where she has made her home, and describes designing and building a house there. On the day she first visited the landscape, a cloud in the shape of a bird hung in the air: an omen for a harmonious way of living. JJ


Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, by John Stubbs (Viking). Stubbs, whose first book was an excellent biography of John Donne, now puts the losers back at the centre of the national story. He is clearly fascinated by those who stayed loyal to the crown during the decades when being a roundhead was the safer option. Expect lots of poetry, loose sexual morals and some really frothy hair-dos. KH


The Language Wars, by Henry Hitchings (John Murray). As the unreceding tsunami of tendentious modern guides to "correct" English shows, some people have a large and angry bee in their bonnet about the lamentable illiteracy of everyone else. There have always been such complainers, as this history of debates over "proper" English promises to show, ranging from Swift to Buffy, and the split infinitive to textspeak.
Steven Poole


Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal (Jonathan Cape). People are miserable, and no wonder, because the world sucks. McGonigal, a games designer, says we should make life more like videogames. Shoot a few hundred actual zombies in the face before breakfast? Sadly, she means something more subtle: to make reality more satisfying with the kinds of "rewards, stimulating challenges and victories" that people zonked out on World of Warcraft so enjoy. SP


Quarry, by Ally Kennen (Scholastic). Age: 12+. Who is sending Scrappy texts daring him to do daft and dangerous things? At first it seems like a joke, but the dares become increasingly threatening: whoever is behind them knows too much about him for comfort. Kennen captures Scrappy's terror as the texts get under his skin. JE



A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (Corsair) arrives from the States trailing clouds of glory. Hopping between characters and eras from the 70s to the near future, playing with language and form (one chapter is a PowerPoint presentation), it charts the dizzying acceleration of cultural change, and the depredations of time (the "goon") on a cast of rock'n'rollers. Back in the UK, Philip Hensher anatomises a smalltown English community in King of the Badgers (Fourth Estate). When an eight-year-old girl goes missing in Hanmouth, the various residents, all with their secret lives, come under suspicion and surveillance. Anatomy of a Disappearance (Viking), Hisham Matar's follow-up to his acclaimed In the Country of Men, is another story of absence and secrets, set in Cairo and England: a young boy who wishes his father out of the way for the sake of his glamorous stepmother slowly discovers how little he knows about those he loves. Meanwhile, we say farewell to lugubrious investigator Kurt Wallander in The Troubled Man, by Henning Mankell (Harvill Secker): his final case uncovers cold war secrets that threaten both contemporary Swedish politics and his relationship with his daughter. JJ


The Romantic Dogs, by Roberto Bolaño (Picador). First English translation of the late Bolaño's verse since he was "discovered" by the English speaking world a few years back. Bolaño turned to fiction in his 40s, concerned that he couldn't support a family by poetry. When asked "What makes you believe that you're a better poet than a novelist?" he replied: "The poetry makes me blush less." Hundred Doors, by Michael Longley (Cape). Longley's first new volume since Snow Water in 2006 is the big event of the poetry month. In it, he continues his deeply affecting engagement with the natural world, the pity of war and the consolations of love and art. NW


The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot "Capability" Brown 1716-1783, by Jane Brown (Chatto & Windus). Beautifully illustrated life of the garden wizard who changed the way England looked in the 18th century. "Capability" thought nothing of moving hills (mountains were a bit beyond even him) and making rivers change direction. The result was a pastoral idyll that, even now, lurks near the surface of our own continuing fantasies of rural England. KH


Bracelet of Bones, by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Quercus). Age: 10+. When Solveig's father leaves for a new adventure without her, she sets off alone from Norway, through the Baltic, along the rivers of Russia to Miklagard. High in drama, and richly furnished in the Viking detail that Crossley-Holland, who won the Guardian children's fiction prize in 2001, inhabits so comfortably, this is an exciting story of one girl's journey to adulthood. JE

Natural history

Here on Earth: A New Beginning, by Tim Flannery (Penguin). Life, as far as we know, exists only on planet Earth: intelligent life lately seems to be about to engineer civilisation's apocalypse. Does it have to end like this? Flannery is a conservationist with clout, class and vision, and could be just the man to tell the whole story of creation again, this time with a happy ending (perhaps). TR


The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, by James Gleick (Fourth Estate). Fans of Gleick, who more or less single-handedly invented the modern genre of heavyweight pop-science with Genius and Chaos, will welcome him back for an overdue cultural investigation into "information", a word whose ubiquity he began to interrogate last month on the New York Review blog: "The word 'information' has grown urgent and problematic – a signpost seen everywhere, freighted with new meaning and import." Fifty years after the information age was declared, are we any closer to knowing what it is? SP



This month's pearl is The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (Hamish Hamilton). Unfinished on his death in 2008, it's been assembled by his editor from manuscript and notes, and tells the story of Illinois tax office trainee "David Foster Wallace" entering a workplace so monotonous that employees get boredom-survival training. There he finds a surprising cast of characters and, as ever, wonder in the mundane.

Following his historical trilogy, Roddy Doyle returns to contemporary Dublin with Bullfighting (Jonathan Cape), a story collection in which an assortment of men face up to middle age, disillusionment and the death of the Celtic tiger. Another Irish master, Dermot Healy, publishes his first novel in 11 years: Long Time, No See (Faber) is set in a small community on the west coast of Ireland, and follows the friendship between damaged youngster Mr Psyche and a pair of elderly alcoholics, Uncle Joe-Joe and The Blackbird.

Two acts of literary ventriloquism next: in A Man of Parts (Harvill Secker) David Lodge channels the elderly HG Wells to look back on the life of "the man who invented tomorrow", while James Frey takes on no less than the Messiah, running loose in contemporary New York in The Final Testament of the Holy Bible (John Murray).

Appearing in English at last, the banned Chinese novel The Dream of Ding Village, by Yan Lianke (Constable) is a furious satire of capitalism and corruption based on a blood-contamination scandal that saw whole villages wiped out after peasants who had been pressured into selling their blood were infected with Aids. Debuts to look out for include SJ Watson's high-concept thriller Before I Go to Sleep (Doubleday), about a woman whose amnesia makes each new day a blank slate, and Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (Jonathan Cape), a tragicomedy of Sri Lanka seen through the lens of cricket. JJ


November, by Sean O'Brien (Picador). O'Brien follows his TS Eliot and Forward prize-winning The Drowned Book with a collection "haunted by the missing and the missed". It features elegies for the dead as well as reflections on missed opportunities, on lost sleep and on times past. O'Brien also revisits Dante with a subterranean journey through his native Tyneside. NW


Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid, by Margaret Powell (Pan). This was a huge hit in the 1970s, when the whole nation sat down to watch Upstairs, Downstairs (the first time around). Now, in the wake of Downton Abbey, it makes sense to reprint Powell as a kind of vintage companion piece. It's full of extraordinary detail and, behind the chipper tone, you sense Powell's relief that, by the end of her life, she had found an easier way of making a living than getting down on her hands and knees. KH


On Being: A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence, by Peter Atkins (OUP). The total energy of the universe is zero: we exist, but we came from nowhere and ultimately amount to nothing. Cue for a creator? A moment to say such questions are not for science? Not a chance with Atkins, physical chemist of world renown and a thoughtful but vociferous atheist, with a record of books that sometimes read like lectures, but always those brilliant, compelling lectures that you treasure, because they illuminate unexpected worlds. TR


Green Philosophy, by Roger Scruton (Atlantic). Fox hunting is good because it makes people appreciate hedgerows – no, wait, I jest. Scruton's argument: "Environmental problems must be addressed by all of us in our everyday circumstances, and should not be confiscated by the state." To address them ourselves, Scruton says, we ought to cultivate "oikophilia" – not love of oiks, disappointingly, but love of home. Bound to contain interesting things, though it remains to be seen whether Scruton has corrected his views on climate science. SP

Natural history

The Reason Why: Snowball Earth and Intelligent Life, by John Gribbin (Allen Lane). Why is there life on Earth and (seemingly) nowhere else? What happened to make this planet special? Could it have been a cosmic traffic accident that set up a series of temperature traumas that gave complex life the compulsion to evolve, variegate and eventually deliver the intelligence that begat The X Factor, Twitter and thermonuclear war? Gribbin is an astrophysicist with a long record of books about both cosmology and climate history. This latest promises a new twist to old conjecture. TR


Elif Batuman's The Possessed (Granta) is a deeply clever and very funny collection of essays: half memoir, half love-letter to the Russian literary greats. The book has been feted in America: Slate called it a "cross between Borges and Borat" while the New York Times said the essays "unfold comically and intellectually as if Ms Batuman were channelling Janet Malcolm by way of Woody Allen". Expect similar raves here.
Paul Laity


You're Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Getting Old, by Lewis Wolpert (Faber). Almost certainly not the only 2011 book about the geriatric generation (right now, Britain has more persons of pension age than school age, and the imbalance will increase), nor about fantasies of immortality. But Wolpert is a distinguished developmental biologist with a talent for books that duck the predictable and throw new light on old themes by occupying unexpected vantage points. Great title, too, although I fear I may have committed precisely that triteness when last we met. TR



After four glittering novels of high life, low life, abuse, addiction, thwarted love and family ties, At Last, by Edward St Aubyn (Picador) promises to be the final outing for Patrick Melrose. On the day of his mother's funeral, we follow Patrick from service to wake to solitary bedsit, where he is perhaps finally free of the legacy of the past. Another gem this month will be Anne Enright's follow-up to her 2007 Booker winner, The Gathering: The Forgotten Waltz (Jonathan Cape) unfolds over one snowy Dublin day, as a woman remembering the heady days of an affair awaits a visit from her lover's daughter.

David Bezmozgis's story collection Natasha made him an American sensation: his first novel, The Free World (Viking), introduces us to a family of Latvian emigrés stuck in Rome on their exodus from communism to the new world. Uncharted territory is explored in an unusual debut, The Wandering Falcon, by Jamil Ahmad (Hamish Hamilton), interlinked stories about nomadic tribes in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile, out on the outskirts of the universe, China Miéville's Embassytown (Macmillan) is set on the planet of Arieka, where humans coexist with alien hosts; and behind bedroom doors back on Earth, Alan Bennett offers frank and funny tales of sex in middle life with Smut: Two Unseemly Stories (Faber/Profile). Sebastian Faulks penned a James Bond novel in 2008: now thriller writer Jeffery Deaver takes the wheel for Project X (Hodder & Stoughton), promising to resurrect Fleming's spy in a contemporary setting. JJ


Adapt, by Tim Harford (Little, Brown). This is one of those books with an annoying Gladwellesque subtitle that promises an explanation of something you don't necessarily believe – in this case, "Why Success Always Starts with Failure". But Harford, the "Undercover Economist" and presenter of Radio 4's superb More or Less, is no slouch, and the idea – that complex problems, from global warming to the financial crisis, can only be solved by rapid experimentation and learning from reiterated failures – sounds intriguing. SP


Illuminations, by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by John Ashbery (Carcanet). Ashbery has had a career-long engagement with French poetry, and now comes his much anticipated translation of Rimbaud. The parallel text of this hallucinatory suite of prose poems – a "collection of magic lantern slides" – is a significant literary event. "If we are absolutely modern, and we are," says Ashbery in his preface, "it's because Rimbaud commanded us to be." The Captain's Tower: Poems for Bob Dylan at 70 (Seren). Birthday anthology "concerned with Dylan's life, his work, and his cultural impact". Allen Ginsberg, Simon Armitage, Andrew Motion, Roger McGough, Paul Muldoon and many others wish His Bobness many happy returns. NW


Mr Briggs' Hat, by Kate Colquhoun (Little, Brown). The first of what is surely going to be a stream of Victorian murder books, bobbing along in the wake of Kate Summerscale's highly successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. The Briggs case involves the North London Railway Line, a bloody beaver hat and a frenzied Victorian press keen to suggest that railways and murder were somehow inevitable consequences of one another. KH


The Value of Everything, by Jeffrey Sachs (Bodley Head). Subtitled "Capitalism and Prosperity after the Fall", this is a guide to action from the US economist. Rising oil and food prices, he explains, are not temporary cyclical problems but the leading edge of coming ecological crises: what is needed is a new set of economic rules that address climate change and global developments as well as local and national interests. Sachs's chilling message is that we have less time than we thought. JJ



Beryl Bainbridge's posthumously published The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress (Little, Brown) takes a detail from the investigation into the assassination of Robert Kennedy – witness sightings of a young girl in the hotel where he was shot – to spin a yarn around a childhood trauma, a sinister doctor and an American road trip.

Booker-winner Aravind Adiga follows The White Tiger with Last Man in Tower (Atlantic), a kaleidoscopic portrait of a changing Mumbai peopled by the residents of an old apartment block ripe for redevelopment. Back in London, Ali Smith's There but for the (Hamish Hamilton) explores memory, identity and communal living through the delightful conceit of a dinner party guest who really outstays his welcome: Miles is the friend of a friend who tags along to a Greenwich party, locks himself in a bedroom and refuses to leave. Other notable novels include River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh (John Murray), the second in his opium wars seafaring trilogy; Pure, by Andrew Miller (Sceptre), set on the cusp of the French revolution; and Wish You Were Here, by Graham Swift (Picador), about a brother killed in Iraq. JJ


The Origin of Our Species, by Chris Stringer (Allen Lane). This is trailed as the definitive guide to the greatest debate of all: who are we and where did we come from? Definitive is a confident word, given that fresh evidence is unearthed (literally) every year and that the big picture seems to shift a bit every five years. But as the head of human origins at the Natural History Museum, Professor Stringer is the authority of final resort on human fossil findings. He has a record of fairly rehearsing all the competing anthropological arguments, while putting his own views with glorious clarity. TR


Selected Poems, by Philip Larkin, selected by Martin Amis (Faber). The Larkin industry continues in rude health, and after so much about the life it's good to get back to the poetry with a new selection by Amis, who has drawn on Larkin's four collections as well as previously unpublished poems. "More than memorable", he explains, Larkin is "instantly unforgettable". NW



In July, Alan Hollinghurst follows up his 2004 Booker winner The Line of Beauty with The Stranger's Child (Picador), charting the fortunes of two families through the 20th century. There's also a second novel from Ross Raisin, author of God's Own Country, whose Waterline (Viking) centres on a former shipbuilder cast adrift in the modern world.

August brings a big new book from Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men, about the disappearance of a young boy in the Californian desert, and a comedy of life in a Welsh commune, Offcuts, from novelist and poet Joe Dunthorne (both Hamish Hamilton). Sebastian Barry follows the Costa-winning The Secret Scripture with On Canaan's Side (Faber), the story of an Irishwoman's life in America, while in AL Kennedy's The Blue Book (Jonathan Cape), two psychics fall in love.

September sees a new novel from Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table (Jonathan Cape), about a boy travelling by ocean liner from Sri Lanka to England, and the latest from Haruki Murakami, IQ84 (Harvill Secker), a love affair at long distance featuring a would-be writer and a religious cult. Then there's the English publication of Michel Houellebecq's Goncourt-winner The Map and the Territory (William Heinemann), a picaresque satire on art and celebrity featuring the brutal murder of Houllebecq himself. The death of the author has never looked so messy. JJ

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