The Best Books to Look Out For in November 2018
November sees us bid farewell to our regular monthly round-ups for 2018 before we don our Santa hats in December to recommend some of the year’s best Christmas gifts. We go out on a high though, with a selection that includes a mix of blockbuster releases, lost classics and buzz-generating hidden gems...
Few books in recent times have generated as much speculation and pre-publication hype as Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Published to global fanfare this week, Becoming has earned early headlines for its open criticism of President Trump, but it’s the insights into the former First Lady’s identity, beliefs and experience that stand out. An astoundingly forthright account of a woman of grit, tenacity and unshakable integrity, it deserves to become a landmark read for generations to come.
Famously scathing about heritage - ‘they f*** you up, your mum and dad’, he so immortalised - Philip Larkin’s reputation has been through peaks and troughs since his death in 1985. Labelled variously by biographers as curmudgeonly, chauvinistic and deeply conservative, Larkin’s personal stock has plummeted as his poetry has grown in popularity. Successfully bridging the man and his art, Larkin scholar James Booth introduces a wealth of previously unreleased correspondence in Philip Larkin: Letters Home. Particularly illuminating on the relationship between the poet and his mother, the book is a surprisingly touching insight into Larkin, his inspiration and his complex attitude to home and love.
Laundry bills and the weather over the Humber are a far cry from the life unveiled on the pages of In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin. Written by fellow correspondent Lindsey Hilsum, it’s a book that presents Colvin as a tough and uncompromising figure - scathing, drily funny and driven to seek out limits in both her professional and private life. A book with important lessons about how we tell the most important stories, as the New Statesman remarks, ‘In Extremis is a gripping and very moving book which raises important questions about the way society values foreign correspondents at a time when their profession has never seemed more perilous.’
History & Politics
In extremis is a phrase equally suited to the experiences of former Special Forces operative Jason Fox, chronicled in his candid new book Battle Scars. Best-known as the frontman of popular television series SAS: Who Dares Wins, Fox has also suffered from the personally devastating consequences of PTSD. His book is excellent not only in its detailing of the first-hand experience of elite conflict, but also the suffering and sacrifice that are its aftermath. If Fox’s account puts soldiers’ experience under a microscope, Dan Snow’s illuminating book, On This Day in History, could be said to do the same for our view of the past. Using the deceptively simple technique of exploring one key event for every day of the year - some infamous, others unfamiliar - Snow builds an impressively accessible global history.
Elsewhere, Peter Frankopan’s latest volume, The New Silk Roads, takes up the threads of his previous internationally bestselling history, The Silk Roads, and with them weaves a beguiling new prediction of a Eurasian future. Startlingly up-to-date in its statistics and research, The New Silk Roads stands in marked contrast to the growing Western rhetoric of isolationism and nationalism, suggesting the future is incontrovertibly interconnected. It is a book that, in many ways, echoes the lessons of Simon Jenkin’s admirably comprehensive single-volume overview, A Short History of Europe. As in its precursor, A Short History of England, Jenkins displays a knack for condensing long-form survey into digestible and entertaining narrative, without ever losing the human detail of the events he describes. Like Frankopan, he offers a timely reminder of the history of mutual co-dependence and the costs of its dissolution.
With Brexit uppermost on the political agenda, Europe’s future is given a very different perspective on the pages of the collaborative volume Drawing Europe Together. Inspired by London’s 2018 Drawing (for) Europe exhibition, the book brings together 45 illustrators from around Europe to present an artist’s view of the continent’s past, present and future. Introduced by award winning illustrator Axel Scheffler, and including contributions from artists including Quentin Blake, Judith Kerr and Chris Riddell, it offers a unique and eye-opening perspective on our times.
Anyone who witnessed Jeanette Winterson’s electrifying - and unbelievably note-free - presentation of the 2018 Richard Dimbleby Lecture will be delighted to see her words brought to a wider audience in the pocket-sized volume, Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere. Examining the evolution of the fight for gender equality in the 100 years since British women first achieved the vote, Winterson offers a rousing testament to why women’s rights continue to be a vital issue. Funny, provocative and passionate, it’s a truly inspirational read. A figure used to confronting not only the day’s most controversial views but those whose job it is to defend them, LBC presenter James O’Brien has forged a reputation for reasoned, indefatigable counter-argument. Tackling issues from Brexit to benefits, feminism to the far right, his hilarious book How to Be Right encourages every reader to react a little less, and think a lot more, before deciding what and who to believe.
Entertainment & Sport
With a fan-base stretching so wide as to encompass none other than Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s favourite Grime MC Stormzy tells a unique story of belief and idealism in Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far. Charting a rise from his roots in the underground music scene to mainstream superstardom, as the Evening Standard comments, for a new generation the book nothing less than ‘a manual demonstrating how big plans can become realities.’
From a life in the spotlight to one that’s famously shadowed: that of avant-garde musician Kate Bush. Published in early December, in a collectible, cloth-bound edition, How to Be Invisible brings together personally-selected lyrics from the artist’s 40-year career for the very first time. It is a volume that brightly illuminates an extraordinary, idiosyncratic creative talent.
A musical icon and notorious hell raiser, Eric Clapton’s history encompasses the dramatic highs of rock stardom and the crashing lows of excess and addiction. In Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, it is a life that is masterfully revealed by expert music biographer Philip Norman (the author behind authoritative biographies of Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Paul McCartney) presenting a balanced and nuanced portrait of a living legend.
One of the worlds’ most physically demanding sports, cycling demands incredible reserves of endurance and stamina, often in the face of agonising pain, and never less so than in the gruelling battle of the Tour de France. Offering unique insights into the world’s most famous bike race - and his own personal journey to Tour glory - Geraint Thomas’s The Tour According to G is a riveting story of his years of struggle. A reflection on the magical mix of grit and luck it takes to succeed. Meanwhile, in Do You Know What?, former cricketing legend Freddie Flintoff shrugs off his hero’s mantle to reflect on some of the more eclectic googlies life has bowled at him. From Poundland shopping to a turn in the West End, it’s a joyfully off-beat guide to living your best life.
Crime & Thrillers
No autumn would be complete without the promised treat of a new Lee Child, and in Past Tense the King of Thrills is on sizzling present form. Set deep in New England, Child delivers a winning mix of high-octane pace and intriguing back-story as anti-hero Jack Reacher finds himself walking in his father’s murky footsteps.
Already a firm favourite with our readers for her Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, Ellie Griffiths’ latest, standalone novel, The Stranger Diaries, may be her best yet. A gothic contemporary mystery carrying echoes of Susan Hill, it blurs genre lines to craft something that’s original, chilling and impossible to put down. There’s a similar depth of invention at work too in Anthony Horowitz’s The Sentence is Death, the highly satisfying follow-up to his bestseller The Word is Murder. Horowitz manipulates multiple narrative strands with playful dexterity, and it’s impossible not to be swept up in the mystery he creates. As satisfying as anything Conan Doyle could dream up, it is a whodunit served with a generous measure of fun.
Back for a second bite of the Olympian cherry, Stephen Fry follows up his bestselling Mythos with Heroes. In Fry’s hands, the quarrels of men, gods and monsters take on a new zest and vigour, revealing new secrets about humanity’s vaulting ambition and fatal flaws.
From re-told classics to rediscovered ones: originally published to critical acclaim in 1962, William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer earned him comparisons with James Baldwin, but the novel later fell from public attention. Depicting the consequences for community of a mass African-American exodus from the South, the novel is a sweeping examination of the pernicious effects of white supremacy. Kelley - who is famously credited for coining the term ‘woke’ in The New York Times’ article “If You're Woke, You Dig it” - writes with startling narrative potency.
There’s an equally transporting quality to the hypnotically written - and invitingly jacketed - Crimson, the debut novel from South Greenlandic author Niviaq Korneliussen. Examining the lives of four young Greenlanders and exploring - in striking prose - issues of gender, sexuality, depression and national identity, the Guardian declares that ‘Crimson transports us to a cold homeland where the blood runs hot’. Reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s celebrated Normal People, Crimson is a novel that says much about the restlessness and bravery of youth.
Responding to Brexit-era Britain with a characteristic mix of comedy and pathos, Jonathan Coe’s Middle England reconstructs the cast of his bestseller The Rotters Club, catapulted forwards from the 1970’s to a world of Twitter trolls, smart phones and bitter social division. Political novels can be a hard pill to swallow, but Coe balances rage and absurdity with aplomb. ‘His affectionately witty attitude to our human foibles is always uplifting,’ writes the Times, ‘even when the politically divisive subject matter is morbidly depressing.’ There’s equally entertaining social commentary at work in Posy Simmonds much-admired new graphic novel, Cassandra Darke. A seamless blend of words and imagery deliver a seasonal story of malice and amateur sleuthing that is also a delightfully barbed puncturing of snobbery and cloistered pretension.
For anyone preferring their fiction on the lighter side, a dose of Ben Schott’s affectionate homage to P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the King of Clubs, may well be the perfect prescription. Plunging Wodehouse’s ever-resourceful man-servant into the murky world of underground espionage, it has capers aplenty to engage both committed Wodehouse fans and new readers alike. There are further undercover thrills to be found too on the pages of Jeffrey Archer’s epic Heads You Win. Spanning 30 years and crossing continents, Archer presents a beguiling portrait of how a life’s trajectory can hang on a momentary twist of fate.
Fans of Lucinda Riley meanwhile will be eager to embark on the next instalment of her Seven Sisters series, The Moon Sister. Moving from the Scottish wilds to the shadow of Granada’s Alhambra Palace, it’s an ideal read to bring some heat to a cold winter’s day.
Short fiction’s recent renaissance has fostered some brilliant new examples of brevity at its best. The author of the phenomenally popular P.S. I Love You, Cecelia Ahern now brings characteristic wit and sensitivity to 30 feminist stories in Roar. Featuring 30 women, each at crossroads in their lives, it is a glorious celebration of female empowerment in many different forms. And Man Booker Prize-winning author George Saunders makes a welcome return to the form that made his name in Fox 8, a dark, linguistically playful anthropomorphic story of encroaching urbanisation. Our world looks very different through the eyes of Saunder’s vulpine outsider who charms even as a macabre fable grows around him. Beautifully illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal and available now signed by the author, it is an ideal gift.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Isn’t it just the way? You wait and wait for a blockbuster epic fantasy to arrive only for two to roll in, hot on each other’s heels. Thankfully, for fans of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, the wait is more than worth it.
Published to coincide with the film’s release on 16 November, Rowling’s original screenplay, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, has a darker storyline, a host of magical new creatures and features the welcome return of a certain Albus Dumbledore. As the Guardian affirms, ‘the architectural detail of J.K. Rowling’s creativity is as awe-inspiring as ever.’
Meanwhile, George R.R. Martin also sets to work filling in the historical clues, expertly laying the groundwork for next year’s television series finale of A Game of Thrones. The result is the first volume in a dizzyingly-engrossing two-part Targaryen history, Fire and Blood.
There’s fresh Folly too in Lies Sleeping, the seventh chapter in former Waterstones Bookseller Ben Aaronovitch’s winning, London-set, fantasy detective series, Rivers of London. Here hapless apprentice wizard detective Peter Grant faces down a Machiavellian plot, a criminal mastermind and a supernatural killer in the author’s most ambitious novel to date. Lastly, there’s a new voice on the fantasy scene: British author Tasha Suri. Her excellent debut novel, Empire of Sand, draws on historical themes of class warfare and religious conflict, set against a sun-blistered, dune-ridged backdrop. Daring and fresh, it’s impossible to put down.