Take a bead on what to read

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am


So, farewell 2011. You were a strange year where books were concerned. Julian Barnes triumphed at the Man Booker, at last. But like Howard Jacobson the year before, it was a pyrrhic victory won with a so-so novel, The Sense of an Ending. Then again, it was a so-so shortlist that excluded Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child and Edward St Aubyn's At Last, both considered novels of the year in recent weeks.

Arguably 2011's crowning fictional achievement was Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, a gloriously ambitious but accessible collection of interwoven stories that beat Jonathan Franzen's overhyped Freedom to the Pulitzer Prize. Goon Squad also inspired one of the first authentically excellent enhanced e-books, mixing music and imagery. The winner in this hi-tech category was Faber's remarkable version of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land for the iPad and iPhone.

Elsewhere, 2011 witnessed two heirs of J.R.R. Tolkein come of age: George R.R. Game of Thrones Martin and Christopher Inheritance Cycle Paolini. However, it was a 2009 novel that topped sales: David Nicholls' One Day was everywhere, until the so-so film adaptation dampened the hype.

Non-fiction preferred light-weight subjects once again. Every comedian the world over appeared to write an autobiography. It seemed to be a legal requirement to own either the e- or audiobook of Stephen Fry's puffed-up Chronicles. Steve Jobs' untimely death made Walter Isaacson's biography one of the best-sellers of the year.

Frank Dikotter's extraordinary Mao's Great Famine added considerable heft, as did a late rush of impressive biographies: Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life, Fiona MacCarthy's The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edmund Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination and Dinah Roe's The Rossettis in Wonderland.

Finally, it is perhaps sobering to remember that 2011 marked the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. How many books published this year will be celebrated so vigorously in 2411?

What does 2012 have in store? At a time when bookshops are feeling the pinch of a bad economy and the growing power of the internet, readers can expect quite a lot more of the same-old-same-old. Big names and sure-fire hits are more valued and valuable than ever. It's worth noting, for instance, that Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad was rejected by her British publisher for being too uncommercial.

So expect James Patterson to release a book every fortnight, aided by a literary battery farm of co-authors. Expect Patricia Cornwell, Stephen King, Lee Child, Kathy Reichs and, in all probability, Stieg Larsson to dominate the charts again. Expect Jo Nesbo to ascend to crime fiction's top table, aided by a film adaptation of Headhunters and the release of Phantom. Personally, I am looking forward to John Connolly's next instalment of Charlie Parker's investigations, and The Black Box, Michael Connelly's take on the LA Riots.

Publishing's boom area may well continue to be the young adult market. There is even a movie, titled Young Adult, featuring Charlize Theron as a troubled author of teen fiction, about to hit cinemas. Things are in need of refreshment, however: with the vampire craze feeling, well, dead and buried publishers are looking for the next bandwagon.

We've had angels and demons, so what about ghost stories? I enjoyed the first part of Amy Plum's Revenant series set in France, and look forward to Until I Die in March. Considering the success of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, I wouldn't be surprised to see more gothic vaudeville on the way. Top of my personal YA pops, however, is Lauren Oliver's Pandemonium, which picks up the story begun by 2011's superb Delirium: the intriguing set-up is a world where love has been made illegal.

Literary fiction looks set for a kick in the nethers this year thanks to a new prize - the imaginatively monikered The Literature Prize. Intended to 'establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence', it sticks two high-art fingers up at the apparently low-brow Booker. New novels by Peter Carey (The Chemistry of Tears), William Boyd (Waiting for Sunrise), Howard Jacobson (Zoo Time), Philip Hensher (Scenes from Early Life) and Nadine Gordimer (No Time Like the Present) are sure to be in contention.

The Man Booker is not taking things lying down. The judging panel for the 2012 prize - to be awarded on October 18 - is heavyweight: two academics, a literary editor and, er, an actor from Downton Abbey. But even the latter is an improvement on recent years. Chief challengers to Carey, who is still aiming for a Man Booker hat trick, include John Lanchester's Capital and Elliot Perlman's superb The Street Sweeper, which criss-crosses the globe (from Auschwitz to New York) in a narrative spanning the past half century.

The awards season kicked off last week with the unveiling of the Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist - the strong field was dominated by Indian writers, including Amitav Ghosh (for River of Smoke); Chinese writer Yan Lianke (Dream of Ding Village) made it too.

The summer looks packed, with several heavyweight novelists going toe-to-toe. Toni Morrison heads Home, Richard Ford releases Canada and Martin Amis unleashes the gloriously titled Lionel Asbo: The State of England. Bring Up the Bodies. Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall comes out in the autumn, as do novels by Michael Chabon (Telegraph Avenue) and John Banville, who drops his criminal alter ego Benjamin Black, and returns to literary fiction with Ancient Light.

Other intriguing titles include Nathan Englander's new collection of stories, What We Talk About When We talk About Anne Frank, John Irving's 14th novel, In One Person, and Thomas Mallon's Watergate. Sci-fi wunderkind China Mieville continues his upward trajectory with Railsea, and Mark Haddon (of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) returns with The Red House. Shalom Auslander's first novel, Hope: A Tragedy, should be a hoot, despite its title, as should John O'Farrell's hysterical dissection of marriage, The Man Who Forgot His Wife.

Readers in Hong Kong can keep track of publishing industry trends at the Hong Kong Book Fair in July; across the border, the Beijing International Book Fair runs from August 29 to September 2.

Older works being re-published or published for the first time include William Gaddis' masterly The Recognitions, Lionel Shriver's The New Republic and Jack Kerouac's The Sea is My Brother. This year should also be Kerouac crazy: there's a film adaptation of On the Road.

Non-fiction in 2012 looks set to divide into three broad strands: Dickens (bicentenary of his birth), the Titanic (centenary), and the Olympics. While the last will inspire cheap cash-ins and guides to being ripped off in London, let me recommend Craig Taylor's Londoners, an oral history of the capital narrated by real people who live real lives in the city.

Richard Davenport-Hines' elegantly written Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew is the first 2012 book about the sinking of the luxury liner in 1912, and keep your eye out for Dickens' Victorian London by Alex Werner and Tony Williams.

Other highlights include essay collections by four literary giants: William Gibson, Colm Toibin, Marilynne Robinson and Jonathan Franzen. Personally, I can't wait for Jeff Geoff Dyer's Zona, which promises to be a characteristically idiosyncratic study of Andrei Tarkovsky's film, Stalker. Alain de Botton will doubtless infuriate and beguile with Religion for Atheists.

The late Christopher Hitchens' collection of essays, titled with some pathos Mortality, deserves to be required reading. Honourable mentions go to W.G. Sebald's poems, Across the Land and Water, and Kevin Huizenga's graphic novel Gloriana, which follows the seemingly mundane life of Glenn Ganges and is a cut above the rest.

The real joy of reading new books is the hope of falling in love with a new author. I have already enjoyed J. Courtney Sullivan's New York Times best-seller Maine - a light but emotional tale of family dysfunction. Helen Schulman's This Beautiful Life has a set-up to die for: Jake, a New York teen forwards an explicit video of an even younger New York girl to, well, the entire world.

I am also looking forward to Satantango by Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai. First published in 1985, this inventive story about the dissolution of a rural collective has been translated into English by fellow Hungarian literary star, George Szirtes.

With publishing fracturing and dispersing as never before, there will be many more surprises than these. Technology is enabling authors to publish and self-publish as never before. While sales of printed books fell by GBP100 million (HK$1.2 billion) in Britain last year, those of e-books and e-book readers rose sharply: an estimated 1.33 million e-readers were sold over Christmas alone. By a similar token, last November young adult fiction author Amanda Hocking became the second 'unpublished' writer after thriller writer John Locke to sell a million books via Kindle. Of course, this same technology will result in gigantic waves of garbage: self-pitying memoirs, crudely plotted crime and badly written pornography. But couldn't this just as easily describe the output of several publishing houses right now?

With the industry becoming more conservative, internet self-publishing may be the way ahead for the avant-garde, the experimental and the plain ambitious. One could even describe J.K. Rowling's pottermore.com as a major author boldly going where no other major author has gone before - creating an internet platform to expand and to sell her work. Who might be next?