Biggest books of autumn 2020: what to read in a very busy year

From a secret diary, gossipy celebrity memoirs and a love letter to Jürgen Klopp, to novels by Don DeLillo, Elena Ferrante and Nick Hornby - new releases to look out for


This autumn will be like no other in the world of books. It’s always a busy season, but Covid-19 postponements mean that in September alone, 16,443 titles will be published in the UK (including ebooks and audio): 76% of these are nonfiction. Publishers are worried that much will get lost, but one of the surefire hits is Caitlin Moran’s memoir More Than a Woman (Ebury). Coming a decade after the mega-selling How to Be a Woman, this mid-life book follows, with Moran’s irresistible comic candour, a day in the life of a woman in her early 40s as she deals with ageing parents, divorcing friends, teenagers having “micro-breakdowns”, greying hair, “maintenance shags” and the tyranny of the to-do list. Other writers have covered this ground, but very few are as funny.

As £100m was spent on cookery books in the UK last year, publishers will be putting much financial faith in new offerings by established favourites, among them Ottolenghi Flavour by Yotam Ottolenghi (Ebury, September), Nadiya Bakes by Nadiya Hussain (Michael Joseph, September) and Cook, Eat, Repeat by Nigella Lawson (Chatto, October). Despite endless predictions of the decline of the celebrity memoir, the book industry will also be relying on the smiles prompted by Once Upon a Tyne: Celebrating 30 Years Together on Telly by Ant & Dec (Sphere): nostalgia offers comfort in anxious times. Rather different is the powerful Just Ignore Him by QI star Alan Davies (Little Brown), which looks back to a dark childhood. The memoir by punk poet John Cooper Clarke, Bard of Salford, entitled I Wanna Be Yours (Picador, October), is perhaps one of very few books to feature both Nico and Bernard Manning.

Rupert Everett’s first two volumes of memoir had a gossipy, bittersweet brilliance, so the latest, To The End of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde (Little Brown, October), about his decade making the film The Happy Prince, is eagerly awaited. Dollyites will celebrate the arrival of Dolly Parton’s Songteller: My Life in Lyrics (Hodder, November), while the two major football memoirs are by contrasting figures in the game: Jamie Redknapp, who has written Me, Family and the Making of a Footballer (Headline, October) and Arsène Wenger, whose account of his 22 years of managing Arsenal appears under the title My Life in Red and White (Weidenfeld, October).

Rupert Everett in The Happy Prince.
Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince. Photograph: Wilhelm Moser

In more writerly vein, the novelist and critic Anthony Quinn has written a love-letter to the Premier League title winners in Klopp: My Liverpool Romance (Faber, November). Mary Gaitskill’s sharpness and singular honesty are in evidence in Lost Cat (Daunt, November), a book-length essay about loss, safety and fear that centres on her fostering of two siblings. Orwell prize winner Kate Clanchy has written How to Grow Your Own Poem (Picador, September), an encouragement to write verse; in similar vein, Clive James’s last book The Fire of Joy (Picador, October) is a set of personal, quintessentially Jamesian commentaries on 80 of his favourite poems.

John F Kennedy and Boris Johnson are among the subjects of this season’s stand-out biographies. JFK: Volume 1: 1917-1956 by Fredrik Logevall (Viking) draws on original material, including Oval Office tapes and interviews with Jackie Kennedy. It is a mere 18 months since Tom Bower’s life of Jeremy Corbyn, a book judged by one review to be “catastrophically” guilty of distorting the truth: headlines are nevertheless guaranteed for his latest effort, Boris Johnson: The Gambler (WH Allen, October). Less controversial will be Jasper Rees’s Let’s Do It: The Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood (Trapeze, October), which draws on the much-loved comedian’s personal archive and interviews with friends such as Julie Walters, Dawn French and Celia Imrie. A revealing portrayal of the stubborn-man-behind-the-genius is expected from Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics, by his long-term collaborator Leonard Mlodinow (Allen Lane, September). Hermione Lee’s Tom Stoppard: A Life (Faber, October) will come out while Stoppard’s latest play, Leopoldstadt, is still stalled by Covid-19.

Kenya Hunt.
Kenya Hunt., author of Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood. Photograph: David Newby/The Guardian

Ideas and movements that change the world are reflected on bookshop shelves, and books help to effect the change. Following the Black Lives Matter protests, publishers are more alert than ever to the need to amplify BAME voices in both fiction and non-fiction. Loud Black Girls: 20 Black Women Writers Ask: What’s Next? (4th Estate, October), edited by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené, the authors of hit book and podcast Slay in Your Lane, ranges from Marvel’s Black Panther to “how we can teach our daughters to own their voices”. Later in the season, the journalist Kenya Hunt is bringing out Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood (HQ, November). It includes a valuable piece on the meanings of the term “woke”, a favourite of the rightwing press.

The BLM movement has also given a sharper edge to various “history wars”, especially the study of the British empire. Michael Taylor’s excellent The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery (Bodley Head, November) issues a warning against complacent narratives of British imperial history, and African Europeans by Olivette Otele, professor of the history of slavery at Bristol University (Hurst, October), charts human movement from one continent to another over two millennia. Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance by Stella Dadzie (Verso, October) considers the multiple ways women were involved in slave resistance.

It is unclear to what degree Sasha Swire’s Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power (Little, Brown, September) is an act of rebellion but it is, by all accounts, amusing, indiscreet and causing some consternation in parliament. A journalist and parliamentary researcher, Swire has for over 20 years been married to Hugo Swire, who was the Conservative MP for East Devon from 2001 to 2019. During these two decades, she has also been keeping a secret diary about life as a political plus-one, with lots of details of mansplaining and mixing with Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Cameron.

Essex Girls: A Defence of Profane and Opinionated Women Everywhere by Sarah Perry (Profile, October) is a polemic that makes room for both Kim Kardashian and Harriet Martineau. The feminist and founder of the Everyday Sexism Project Laura Bates has written Men Who Hate Women (Simon & Schuster), a fierce response to misogyny and the incel movement, while Rachel Holmes follows her acclaimed life of Eleanor Marx with Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (Bloomsbury, September).

Hilary Mantel.
Hilary Mantel. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

In a less conventional form of nonfiction, Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett have taken original versions of 12 fairytales and switched all the genders, via computer algorithm: Gender Swapped Fairy Tales (Faber, November) is bound to provoke debate. The autumn will also offer another chance to consider Hilary Mantel’s widely misunderstood feminist critique of the royal family – the Duke of Edinburgh is said to have approved of Kate Middleton because she would “breed in some height” – in Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing from the London Review of Books (4th Estate, October).

With the pandemic, healthcare and “care” generally have assumed a position right at the centre of our lives. Christie Watson, who went back to hospital wards during the crisis, follows her acclaimed The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story with The Courage to Care: A Call for Compassion (Chatto, September). Labours of Love: A Crisis of Care by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, October) is the result of five years of conversations with charity workers, social workers, in-home carers and parents, in an exploration of care as “the hidden glue that binds us together”.

Investigations into dark and difficult areas of society give a presence to people who usually remain invisible. Journalist Maeve McClenaghan’s No Fixed Abode: Life and Death Among the UK’s Forgotten Homeless (Picador, September) is a vital exposé of the crisis on British streets. Another form of “invisible labour” is uncovered in Nick Duerden’s Dishing the Dirt: The Hidden Lives of House Cleaners (Canbury, September). Many of his interviewees are immigrants who came to the UK dreaming of a better life, and ended up draining buckets of bleach. They have hair-raising stories to tell about their employers: “Naturally and reflexively,” the author says, cleaners “are cultural anthropologists”.

Helen Macdonald at her home in Hawkedon.
Helen Macdonald, author of Vesper Flights, at her home in Hawkedon. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Guardian

“Now more than ever before, we need to look long and hard at how we view and interact with the natural world. We’re living through the world’s sixth great extinction, one caused by us.” Helen Macdonald, introducing the essays in Vesper Flights (Cape), conveys one reason nature writing continues to flourish in nonfiction lists: every book in its way engages not only with how we live and balance our lives but with environmental crisis. Her previous work H is for Hawk established Macdonald as a brilliant practitioner of nature-memoir; this new book cautions against viewing the natural world as a ‘mirror of ourselves, reflecting our own world-view and our own needs, thoughts and hopes’. It collects together light, lovely, personal essays, many of which recall the author’s discovery of birds and plants in childhood. Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures (Bodley Head) has already been hailed as a fascinating breakthrough in natural history. David Attenborough reflects on the environmental emergency in A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future (Ebury, October), while in The Corona Crash: How the Pandemic Will Change Capitalism (Verso, October), Grace Blakeley asserts the need for Covid-19 to be a global wake-up call, and makes the case for a Green New Deal.

High-profile, bestselling books have played a vital role in focusing opposition to the Trump presidency, from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury to the recent broadsides fired by John Bolton and Mary Trump. Rage, Bob Woodward’s follow-up to his 2018 White House expose Fear (Simon & Schuster, September) is no doubt timed to influence voters in the November election. Other big-name political books include What Is at Stake Now by Mikhail Gorbachev (Polity, September), an exploration of global instability and renewed threats to peace, and Collateral Damage: Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump by former British ambassador to the US Kim Darroch (William Collins, September).

Behind the Enigma: The Authorised History of GCHQ by John Ferris (Bloomsbury, 20 October) is the first authorised account of Britain’s most secretive intelligence agency, written with unprecedented access to classified archives. Two other appealing works of history also involve secrecy. Chris Bryant’s The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels who Fought for Britain to Defeat Hitler (Bloomsbury, 12 November) rescues the reputation of a group of gay and bisexual MPs who visited Germany in the early 1930s and then spoke out against appeasement. Jack Macnamara, Ronnie Cartland, Victor Cazalet and others were accused of warmongering: Neville Chamberlain had them followed, harassed, spied on and derided in the press. Written out of history for decades because of their sexuality, Bryant records their heroic wartime exploits. Ben Macintyre’s latest historical pageturner is Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy (Viking, September) about Ursula Kuczynski, the German communist who spied for the USSR and was the handler of nuclear scientist Klaus Fuchs.

Hidden realities of a different kind lie beneath the story of Kate Summerscale’s The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story (Bloomsbury Circus, October), which delves into the 1930s case of the “Croydon Poltergeist”, investigated by Nandor Fodor, chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research.

Richard Ovenden, author of Burning the Books.
Richard Ovenden, author of Burning the Books. Photograph: John Angerson/The Guardian

Esteemed librarian Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack (John Murray) began life as an article in which he deplored the destruction of the official Windrush records. It journeys from ancient Mesopotamia to Nazi bonfires and the deletion of Trump’s tweets, identifying repositories of knowledge destroyed by those who set out to “deny the truth and eradicate the past”. Two noteworthy celebrations of books are Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink (Picador, September) and Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani (William Collins, October). But for sheer enthusiasm, it will be hard to beat Martin Latham, bookseller at Waterstones Canterbury for three decades. His The Bookseller’s Tale (Particular) is a collection of tales about famous writers and bibliophiles, but above all a love letter to pages between covers. And now that his shop is returning to something like normal, with the huge tide of autumn titles washing in, he will once again “see customers stroking books, opening them to smell them with closed eyes” and even “giving them a post-purchase hug”.


First up in the flood of autumn fiction are the last two unpublished novels from the Booker longlist: Gabriel Krauze’s Who They Was (4th Estate), a hard-hitting debut set amid London gang culture, and US author Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness (Oneworld), in which a mother and child escape a polluted metropolis for a dangerous experiment in living.

While the Booker list has been rich in new voices, several literary grandees return in September: Inside Story (Jonathan Cape); an autofiction from Martin Amis – “almost certainly my last long novel” – delivers on its title, with frank portraits of friendships with Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens, squirming accounts of sexual escapades from earlier life, and firm instructions on prose style for the would-be writer. There’s also the rare treat of a new novel from Marilynne Robinson, whose Jack (Virago) revisits the world of Gilead for a story of interracial love after the second world war. Yiyun Li delves into family tragedy in Must I Go (Hamish Hamilton), while Rose Tremain’s Islands of Mercy (Chatto) ranges from 19th-century Bath to Borneo via Paris and Dublin exploring colonialism, self-determination and the nature of desire.

Don DeLillo.
Don DeLillo. Photograph: Jean-Christian Bourcart/Getty Images

“I began writing the novel in 2018, long before the current pandemic,” Don DeLillo has said of The Silence (Picador, October). “I started with a vision of empty streets in Manhattan …” Covid-19 casts extra resonance on this slim disquisition on catastrophe, in which a group gathers in a New York apartment to watch the 2022 Super Bowl – and then the world goes dark.

Elena Ferrante continues her key themes of female adolescence and Neapolitan life in The Lying Life of Adults (translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa), an atmospheric portrait of a novelist in the making. Andrew O’Hagan considers male friendship in Mayflies (Faber), as memories of youthful camaraderie in 1980s Scotland are refracted through experience and loss in the decades that follow. Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill (Scribner) is a stylish examination of far right culture and the roots of our contemporary chaos. Jonathan Coe promises some much needed escapism in Mr Wilder and Me (Viking, November), in which a young woman works for the Hollywood director on a Greek island during the summer of 77. Cinema is also at the centre of William Boyd’s Trio (Viking, October), which goes back to the summer of 68 for a love triangle at a time of incendiary global politics.

Two comic chroniclers of romance offer new perspectives on the complications of love: Nick Hornby’s Just Like You (Viking, September) features an age-gap, opposites-attract relationship between a divorced teacher and an aspiring DJ, while Roddy Doyle’s Love (Cape, October) reveals an old secret.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, author of The First Woman.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, author of The First Woman. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

There are second novels from young writers getting into their stride: The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (Faber) explores a young Nigerian’s gender identity, while in Sophie Mackintosh’s dystopia Blue Ticket (Hamish Hamilton) motherhood is enforced or forbidden by a patriarchal lottery. Exit Management by Naomi Booth (Dead Ink, September) is a timely, original dissection of class and desperation in Brexit London; in The First Woman by Kintu author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld, October), a young woman comes of age in 1970s Uganda.

Sayaka Murata has written many novels in Japanese, but the gloriously quirky Convenience Store Woman made her name in the UK; Earthlings (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Granta, September) features another heroine who refuses to conform. Iraqi-born Hassan Blasim follows searing short-story collections with his first novel God 99 (translated by Jonathan Wright, Comma, Nov ember), in which an Iraqi refugee tracks down the real stories behind Europe’s “refugee crisis”.

There is some interesting lane-switching from Sarah Crossan, known for her brilliant YA verse novels: Here is the Beehive (Bloomsbury) brings the same form to an adult tale of love, betrayal and loss. Michel Faber, meanwhile, branches out into children’s fiction with Narnia-esque fable D: A Tale of Two Worlds (Doubleday, September). Philip Pullman’s Serpentine (Penguin, October), a previously unseen story of Lyra in the Arctic written before his current trilogy, will be gobbled up by fans.

In the world of crime and thrillers, Cormoran Strike investigates a cold case in the latest hefty volume from JK Rowling’s alter ego Robert Galbraith, Troubled Blood (Sphere, September), while John Banville writes crime under his own name for the first time in Snow (Faber, September), a typically elegant country house mystery. Secrets are duly uncovered in an Irish village in Tana French’s The Searcher (Viking, November); in The Thursday Murder Club (Viking), set in an upscale retirement complex, Pointless co-host Richard Osman pulls off that rare feat, a celebrity novel as likable as its author. Stuart Turton won the Costa first novel award for his audaciously high-concept The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle; his follow-up The Devil and the Dark Water (Raven, October) looks set to be a deliciously dark thriller aboard a 17th-century sea voyage from the Dutch East Indies.

Emma Cline, author of Daddy.
Emma Cline, author of Daddy. Photograph: Brad Torchia/The Guardian

SF guru Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent fiction has focused on climate change; in The Ministry for the Future (Orbit, October) he imagines the tumultuous decades to come. Notable short story collections include Daddy by The Girls author Emma Cline (Chatto), spooky tales about the horrors of technology from John Lanchester in Reality and Other Stories (Faber, October), and eccentric snapshots of the west of Ireland in That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry (Canongate, October).

With so many hundreds of books, it’s hard even to scratch the surface, but one debut to look out for is Canadian prizewinner Reproduction by Ian Williams (Dialogue, September), an enjoyably offbeat family saga set in polyglot Toronto. Meanwhile, Australian Laura Jean McKay gets her first UK publication with The Animals in That Country (Scribe, September), a powerful, uncanny tale of a flu pandemic that allows humans to understand the language of animals.

Finally, two one-of-a-kind novels that remind us of fiction’s power to take us to another world and expand our understanding of this one. When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut (translated by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin) describes itself as “fiction based on real events”; it illuminates unexpected and often darkly ironic connections between scientific discoveries, and showcases the minds seeking to pierce the mysterious heart of mathematics. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury, September) performs a very different kind of magic from her beloved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: austere, otherworldly and profound, it’s best embarked on absolutely fresh.


Paul Laity and Justine Jordan

The GuardianTramp

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