Happy New Year, dear readers! Here’s hoping for a better one. I also hope you are keeping well and that books can bring you comfort and escapism during this time.
Here’s my roundup of British books hot off the press this month, chosen because they have buzz or critical acclaim or because I find them interesting. (Descriptions are taken from online retailers.) It’s a rough time for both authors and bookshops, and I’m sure they would love your support. It’s even more important than usual to buy from independent bookshops at the moment — and Bookshop.org is a great resource for that.
Where to buy the books:
- UK links are mostly to the new British arm of Bookshop.org, the online platform for buying books that profit shares with independent bookshops. Not only are you supporting independent bookshops when you buy from them — and those bookshops really need our help right now — you’re also supporting the podcasts, since I get a generous commission through the links without adding any costs to you.
- US links, where the book is available there, are to Bookshop.org in the US.
- Where the book is not available in the US, and for other countries, I have linked to Blackwells.com, which is a small and excellent bookshop chain which ships inexpensively worldwide. I’ve searched high and low for reliable, non-Amazon ways to get British books in the US with inexpensive postage costs and Blackwell’s is the best thing I’ve found. These are also affiliate links, so you’ll be sending a few pennies my way, too.
The Humiliations of Welton Blake by Alex Wheatle (UK, US ebook only, 7th January)
Welton Blake has done it! He’s asked out Carmella McKenzie – the best-looking girl in school – and she’s only gone and said yes!
But just as he thinks his luck is starting to change, Welton’s phone breaks, kick-starting a series of unfortunate and humiliating events. With bullies to avoid, girls ready to knock him out and all the drama with his mum and dad, life for Welton is about to go very, very wrong … Hilarity follows disaster in this sharp-witted tale of the trials of teen life from award-winning author Alex Wheatle.
People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd (US, 12th January, UK, 21st January)
People like Emmy Jackson. They always have. Especially online, where she is Instagram sensation Mamabare, famous for always telling the unvarnished truth about modern parenthood.
But Emmy isn’t as honest as she’d like the fans to believe. She may think she has her followers fooled, but someone out there knows the truth and plans to make her pay. Because people like her have no idea what pain careless words can cause. Because people like her need to learn what it feels like to lose everything.
Shiver, by Allie Reynolds (US, 19th January, UK, 21st January)
When Milla is invited to a reunion in the French Alps resort that saw the peak of her snowboarding career, she drops everything to go. While she would rather forget the events of that winter, the invitation comes from Curtis, the one person she can’t seem to let go.
The five friends haven’t seen each other for ten years, since the disappearance of the beautiful and enigmatic Saskia. But when an icebreaker game turns menacing, they realise they don’t know who has really gathered them there and how far they will go to find the truth.
In a deserted lodge high up a mountain, the secrets of the past are about to come to light.
Slug in Love by Rachel Bright and Nadia Shireen (UK, 21st January)
Snuggle up with lonesome Doug on his search for love in this completely charming picture book which shows that you just never know when love might come flying by…
Asylum Road by Oliva Sudjic (UK, 21st January)
A couple drive from London to coastal Provence. Anya is preoccupied with what she feels is a relationship on the verge; unequal, precarious. Luke, reserved, stoic, gives away nothing. As the sun sets one evening, he proposes, and they return to London engaged.
But planning a wedding does little to settle Anya’s unease. As a child, she escaped from Sarajevo, and the idea of security is as alien now as it was then. When social convention forces Anya to return, she begins to change. The past she sought to contain for as long as she can remember resurfaces, and the hot summer builds to a startling climax.
Lean, sly and unsettling, Asylum Road is about the many borders governing our lives: between men and women, assimilation and otherness, nations, families, order and chaos.
What happens, and who do we become, when they break down?
The Lonely Fajita by Abigail Mann (UK, 21st January, US, 6th April)
It’s Elissa’s birthday, and she’s accidentally booked a cervical smear instead of a celebration… Great. The icing on the cake? Her boyfriend is kicking her out of their houseshare.
So when she’s offered the chance to live with a pensioner rent-free, Elissa knows she needs to impress Annie, who turned down the last twenty-two applicants. Somehow, even after Elissa goes on about ‘definitely not being an axe-murderer’, Annie chooses her.
And just like Elissa, prickly, sweary, big-hearted Annie could use a friend. Elissa may have nowhere else to go, but is she just where she needs to be?
How to Be a Refugee: One Family’s Story of Exile and Belonging by Simon May (UK, 21st January)
How to Be a Refugee is Simon May’s gripping account of how three sisters – his mother and his two aunts – grappled with what they felt to be a lethal heritage. Their very different trajectories included conversion to Catholicism, marriage into the German aristocracy, securing ‘Aryan’ status with high-ranking help from inside Hitler’s regime, and engagement to a card-carrying Nazi.
Even after his mother fled to London from Nazi Germany and Hitler had been defeated, her instinct for self-concealment didn’t abate. Following the early death of his father, also a German Jewish refugee, May was raised a Catholic and forbidden to identify as Jewish or German or British.
In the face of these banned inheritances, May embarks on a quest to uncover the lives of the three sisters as well as the secrets of a grandfather he never knew. His haunting story forcefully illuminates questions of belonging and home – questions that continue to press in on us today.
Girl A, by Abigail Dean (UK, 21st January, US, 2nd February)
Lex Gracie doesn’t want to think about her family. She doesn’t want to think about growing up in her parents’ House of Horrors. And she doesn’t want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped. When her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can’t run from her past any longer. Together with her sister, Evie, Lex intends to turn the House of Horrors into a force for good. But first she must come to terms with her six siblings – and with the childhood they shared.
Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life by Alex Christofi (UK, 21st January, US, 23rd March)
In Dostoevsky in Love Alex Christofi weaves carefully chosen excerpts of the author’s work with the historical context to form an illuminating and often surprising whole. The result is a novelistic life that immerses the reader in a grand vista of Dostoevsky’s world: from the Siberian prison camp to the gambling halls of Europe; from the dank prison cells of the Tsar’s fortress to the refined salons of St Petersburg. Along the way, Christofi relates the stories of the three women whose lives were so deeply intertwined with Dostoevsky’s: the consumptive widow Maria; the impetuous Polina who had visions of assassinating the Tsar; and the faithful stenographer Anna, who did so much to secure his literary legacy.
Reading between the lines of his fiction, Christofi reconstructs the memoir Dostoevsky might have written had life – and literary stardom – not intervened. He gives us a new portrait of the artist as never before seen: a shy but devoted lover, an empathetic friend of the people, a loyal brother and friend, and a writer able to penetrate to the very depths of the human soul.
Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Satnam Sanghera (UK, 28th January)
The British Empire ran for centuries and covered vast swathes of the world. It is, as Sanghera reveals, fundamental to understanding Britain. However, even among those who celebrate the empire there seems to be a desire not to look at it too closely – not to include the subject in our school history books, not to emphasize it too much in our favourite museums.
At a time of great division, when we are arguing about what it means to be British, Sanghera’s book urges us to address this bewildering contradiction. For, it is only by stepping back and seeing where we really come from, that we can begin to understand who we are, and what unites us.
Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Rachel Clarke (UK, 28th January)
Rachel is a palliative care doctor who looked after the most gravely unwell patients on the Covid-19 wards of her hospital. Amid the tensions, fatigue and rising death toll, she witnessed the courage of patients and NHS staff alike in conditions of unprecedented adversity. For all the bleakness and fear, she found that moments that could stop you in your tracks abounded. People who rose to their best, upon facing the worst, as a microbe laid waste to the population.
Her new book, Breathtaking , is an unflinching insider’s account of medicine in the time of coronavirus. Drawing on testimony from nursing, acute and intensive care colleagues – as well as, crucially, her patients – Clarke argue that this age of contagion has inspired a profound attentiveness to – and gratitude for – what matters most in life.