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8 January 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 1:55pm

Reading the revolution: books to look out for in 2015

Elections, empires and the "extreme present" in culture editor Tom Gatti's guide to the coming literary year.

By Tom Gatti

Last year 85 per cent of Scots turned out to vote on independence. Will that enthusiasm galvanise the electorate in the May general election, or has a combination of Russell Brand and widespread distrust of mainstream politics already loaded the dice?

The publishing industry is hoping that we are still interested, despite everything, in the state and fate of the nation, and it is rolling out a substantial pre-election reading list, beginning with Cameron’s Coup (Guardian Faber, January), in which Polly Toynbee and David Walker tour the country to show the extent of the coalition’s “assault on Britain’s postwar social settlement”. Visions of a brighter future emerge in How Good Can We Be (Little, Brown, February), Will Hutton’s guide to ending our “mercenary society”, and Honourable Friends? Parliament and the Fight for Change by the Green MP, Caroline Lucas (Portobello, March), while the former Blair adviser Michael Barber shares his thoughts on How to Run a Government (Allen Lane, March) and Anthony King asks (and answers) the question Who Governs Britain? (Pelican, April).

Georgia Gould, the Labour Party councillor and daughter of the Blairite strategist Philip Gould, tackles the “youth problem” in Wasted (Little, Brown, February); Joanna Biggs paints a Studs Terkel-style panorama of Britain at work in All Day Long (Serpent’s Tail, April). And Sam Delaney’s Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising (Faber & Faber, February) might come in handy as a dose of healthy scepticism to counter this year’s spin and sloganeering.

Delaney’s book tells the story behind the Saatchis’ “Labour Isn’t Working” poster that helped to put Maggie Thatcher in No 10; in August the Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng weighs up her leadership in Thatcher’s Trial (Bloomsbury); and in October the second volume of Charles Moore’s biography arrives from Allen Lane.

Another major life story is Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes, which was due to be published by Faber – until Hughes’s widow, Carol, withdrew her co-operation, concerned that Bate was “straying from the remit”, which was to focus on Hughes’s literary development. Bate is now free to write about the poet’s personal life but, with permission to quote revoked, he will have to dodge around Hughes’s own words – as Peter Ackroyd did in his life of T S Eliot.

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Eliot was Hughes’s hero: Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot, published by Jonathan Cape in February around the fiftieth anniversary of his death, begins with his childhood in St Louis and ends with The Waste Land. Adam Sisman’s life of John le Carré arrives this year (Bloomsbury, October), as does Richard Davenport-Hines’s biography of that economist whose ideas have been argued over so vigorously post-2008, John Maynard Keynes (William Collins, March).

If Keynes has no good news for us, we can turn to Grace Jones for distraction from austerity: her memoir Miss Grace Jones (Simon & Schuster, September) promises disco infernos, art experiments and bad 1980s cinema. Jones – with her unmistakable two-and-a-half-octave voice – might enjoy Naked at the Albert Hall (Virago, May), in which the musician and NS columnist Tracey Thorn provides “an insider’s perspective on the exhilarating joy and occasional heartache of singing”. Still on pop, How Music Got Free by Stephen Richard Witt (Bodley Head, June) charts the impact of the MP3 and music piracy on the industry.

Writers continue to grapple with our digital present and future, and there are books on data, privacy and automation, including The Internet Is Not the Answer (Atlantic, February), in which Andrew Keen argues that the web has had deeply negative effects on our society. Jon Ronson explores one of those effects in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador, March), about the social-media-assisted rise of public ridicule. Ronson shows how we can get too personal; yet the “big society” founder, Steve Hilton, thinks that technology (among other factors) has made for a worryingly impersonal society. He has some ideas for how we can become More Human (W H Allen, June).

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For many, humanity is defined by free will, an assumption that John Gray, the NS’s lead book reviewer, unravels in The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry into Human Freedom (Allen Lane, March), touching on everything from cybernetics to fairground puppets. Meanwhile, three thinkers – Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Shumon Basar – have updated Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” in The Age of Earthquakes, a guide to the digital age: what they call the “extreme present” (Penguin, March). Away from computer screens, Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, March) explores the relationship between landscape and language.

Feminism is still on the agenda. The forthcoming film Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, has prompted publishers to dig out Emmeline Pankhurst’s writings and to push biographies of colourful characters such as Sophia Duleep Singh (see page 38) and Constance Lytton. More forward-looking are Do It Like a Woman (Portobello, May), in which Caroline Criado-Perez profiles pioneering women around the world, and How to Start a Revolution, by Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot (Canongate, November).

The once-dusty field of classics is now teeming with our liveliest popular historians, and three of them have books out. SPQR by Mary Beard (Profile, October) covers Rome’s rise “from insignificant village to world superpower”; Dynasty by Tom Holland (Little, Brown, September) tackles the depraved antics of its first emperors; and Bettany Hughes provides a portrait of Istanbul (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, September). The world wars dominate history lists, and Max Hastings, Antony Beevor and Richard J Evans all have books on these out in 2015. A young Indian writer, Raghu Karnad, examines a lesser-told story in Farthest Field (William Collins, June), which charts India’s Second World War through the fate of a single family. 

Two more recent killing sprees will be revisited in 2015. One of Us by Åsne Seierstad (Virago, March) deals with Anders Breivik’s murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011; You Could do Something Amazing with your life (You are Raoul Moat) by Andrew Hankinson (Scribe, April) is a “nonfiction novel”  about the man who three people and prompted a huge manhunt in Northumbria in 2010.

In fiction, an immediate highlight is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in ten years, The Buried Giant (Faber & Faber, March), which begins “as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years”. Readers in search of contemporary concerns and formal innovation might look to Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (Jonathan Cape, March), about life in our age of data saturation, or 10:04 (Granta Books, January), the second novel from the Brooklyn-based Ben Lerner. Other notable US imports are debut novels by Roxane Gay (An Untamed State, Corsair, January) and Garth Risk Hallberg, whose City on Fire (Jonathan Cape, September) culminates in the chaos of the 1977 New York City blackout.

Established novelists with new offerings include the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who returns to Peru in The Discreet Hero (Faber & Faber, April); Toni Morrison (God Help the Child, Chatto & Windus, April); Louis de Bernières, who fixes on the moment when “the Edwardian age disintegrates into the Great War” for The Dust that Falls from Dreams (Harvill Secker, July); and Anne Tyler, who has said that A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus, February) will be her final novel. The marquee names for autumn include Jonathan Franzen (Purity, a “multi-generational American epic”, from Fourth Estate), William Boyd (Sweet Caress, Bloomsbury), Sebastian Faulks (Where My Heart Used to Beat, Hutchinson) and Salman Rushdie (Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, based on the Arabian Nights, from Jonathan Cape). The journalist David Lagercrantz was asked by Stieg Larsson’s estate to extend the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy: the result will be published in August by MacLehose.

In the vampiric world of literature it’s not unusual for novelists to resurrect their forebears, but this year offers a remarkable flurry of writing about writers. Virginia Woolf appears in Adeline by Norah Vincent (Virago, April) and in Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister (Bloomsbury, February); George Eliot in Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker (Bloomsbury, April); Dickens in Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis (Jonathan Cape, May); and Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff in Caryl Phillips’s The Lost Child (Oneworld, April).

Poetry highlights include a book of verse by the late Iain Banks (Little, Brown, February) and second collections from two talented young poets, Frances Leviston (Disinformation, Picador, February) and Sam Riviere (Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, Faber & Faber, February). Not long after publishing his Poetry Notebook, Clive James collects his recent poems (several of them first published in the NS) in Sentenced to Life (Picador, April), which will be followed by Latest Readings (Yale University Press, August), a journey through his library that is “also a tour of James himself”. James is making the most of his allocated time; as readers we should do the same.