Editor of the Financial Times
Ignore the wordy title. Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China (Bodley Head/Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a highly readable account of life in contemporary China. Humane but also critical, Osnos — a New Yorker journalist — has written about ordinary people within the context of dynamic social and economic change. The grand themes such as individual rights versus authoritarianism and the supremacy of the communist party are omnipresent but they do not interrupt the flowing narrative. This is a very useful primer for newcomers seeking to understand the world’s premature superpower.
Author of ‘The Buried Giant’
Most “experimental” novels fall into one of two categories: those that experiment with language, and those that experiment with representations of reality. Rachel Cusk’s Outline (Faber/Farrar, Straus & Giroux) falls into neither camp. It’s undoubtedly experimental in terms of concept and delivery, but there’s nothing that’s intimidating in the manner of some experimental works. In fact, it’s rather cosy and seductive in the way eavesdropping in a café can be: you think you shouldn’t keep listening, but you do. It’s a strange, oblique, devastated novel that inhabits the landscape after a big break-up without giving up any details. It has a chilly beauty, and hasn’t quite left my head since I read it six months ago.
Author of ‘The Girl on the Train’
Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins (Doubleday/Little, Brown) is nothing short of a masterpiece. Elegantly structured and beautifully told, it recounts the story of Teddy Todd, the brother of the protagonist of Atkinson’s 2013 novel, Life After Life, in his attempt to live a “good, quiet life” in the 20th century. Characteristically perceptive and poignant, like its predecessor it also gives a vivid and often thrilling account of life during the second world war — seen this time from the air rather than the streets of London.
Author of ‘Flood of Fire’
Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (Allen Lane/Simon & Schuster) is a work of such monumental significance that it is impossible to do justice to it in a few lines. Suffice it to say that Klein demolishes every argument for “market-based solutions”, exposes the carbon complicities of “Big Green” organisations, demonstrates why geoengineering will not work, and after all that even succeeds in finding a silver lining in the clouds. There is more optimism here than the situation warrants, but a dose of hopefulness is perhaps a necessary ingredient in a work that is intended as a call to the barricades.
Station Eleven (Picador/ Vintage) is an apocalyptic novel about a world in which almost everyone has died in a flu pandemic, and clans roam the earth killing at random. It could hardly sound less promising. And yet Emily St John Mandel’s fourth novel is different partly because she skips over the apocalypse itself — all the action takes place just before or 20 years afterwards — and because it is less about the survival of the human race than the survival of Shakespeare. The book has been on literary shortlists and won prizes and been much praised for its big themes: culture, memory, loss. Yet it works just as well at a less lofty level, as a beautifully written, compulsive read.
Professor at NYU School of Law and author of ‘Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption’
Lila (Virago/Farrar, Straus & Giroux) adds a new perspective to the extraordinary narrative created by Marilynne Robinson’s masterly novels Gilead and Home. Her latest work cements this trilogy as the finest fiction writing of the 21st century and should not be missed. In Lila, Robinson shows us our broken humanity through the eyes of an unwanted child who becomes a woman searching for meaning. In so doing, this compelling work teaches the reader to appreciate the power of redemption and the complexity of love and family in unforgettable ways; self-reflection is unavoidable. It is a gift of rare power and beauty.
Historian and author of ‘John Aubrey: My Own Life’
Anne Enright’s new novel, The Green Road (Jonathan Cape/WW Norton), is a powerful evocation of leaving and returning home. It centres on the Madigan family and their house, near an unnamed town, on the coastline of County Clare. Each of the four Madigan siblings has their own story to tell in settings as diverse as Limerick, New York and Ségou, Mali. But all are dramatically drawn back to the family home to reflect on love and loss.
Author of ‘How Music Got Free’
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harvill Secker/ Harper), Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari suggests that currencies, laws, religions and even nation-states are not actually existing entities, but consensual hallucinations, the products of an inherited tendency to subscribe to social myths. What keeps these myths alive? Harari avoids simple answers, favouring probing inquiries into our evolutionary psyche. He’s particularly good on human conflict — “To say that a social force is maintained by a military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order?”
Editor of FT Weekend
Richard Thaler is a bon vivant provocateur. His character and his latest book, Misbehaving (Allen Lane/WW Norton), were forged in the University of Chicago. Misbehaving is a first-person account of a battle of ideas: between classical economists and the new discipline of behavioural economics. You pick up basic tenets of the field, alongside gossipy flashes of academic life.
Last weekend, I picked up James Salter’s All That Is (Picador/Vintage) — the most brilliant novel I have read in years. Surgically precise, yet embracing vast landscapes of elusive love, death and sex, it distils whole lives into a single page. I felt more alive, more fully myself, when I finished it. When I read this week of Salter’s death, I wished I had met him, for all that he was.
Senior fellow at Stanford and author of ‘Political Order and Political Decay
John DiIulio’s Bring Back the Bureaucrats (Templeton Press) is an eye-opening account of the hollowing out of American government. DiIulio, an expert on public administration at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that the US has fewer full-time federal officials than it did in 1960, while the amount of money they dispense has increased fivefold. In their place is a legion of for-profit contractors and non-profit NGOs with highly mixed motives, about which we know very little. In the process, misguided American hostility to government has produced a huge challenge for democratic accountability.
The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, by Martin Ford, Basic Books, RRP$28.99
If The Second Machine Age (by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee) was last year’s tech-economy title of choice, this book may be 2015’s equivalent. Ford has a far more pessimistic take, persuasively arguing that few roles will escape the current wave of technological disruption.
The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society, by Charles Handy, Random House, RRP£14.99
The octogenarian management writer’s latest book is not a genial look back at a successful career. Rather, it is a firm, sometimes even angry manifesto for radical political, corporate and social change. Governments, companies and individuals all need to leap on to their upward “second curve” before it is too late, Handy suggests.
Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, by Herminia Ibarra, Harvard Business Review Press, RRP£20/$30
Ibarra addresses head-on the mistaken assumption that to act like a leader you need first to learn how. The reverse is true: just do it. Still, the transition to leadership will be “unpredictable, messy, non-linear, and emotionally charged”, she warns. All the more reason to take along this pragmatic guide to the pitfalls.
Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future, by Ashlee Vance, Virgin Books, RRP£20/Ecco, RRP$28.99
Still in his early forties, Elon Musk will merit many more biographies even if he achieves only a fraction of his goals, but Vance’s book is a wonderful start. The author pulls no punches about the virtues and flaws of the risk-hungry entrepreneur and space pioneer, underlining parallels with another brilliant, difficult Silicon Valley figure, the late Steve Jobs.
How Music Got Free: What Happens When an Entire Generation Commits the Same Crime?, by Stephen Witt, Bodley Head, RRP£20/Viking, RRP$27.95
Apple’s entry into the subscription music-streaming market is proof that the music industry survived — just — but Witt tells the exciting story of how close the record labels came to being sunk by online pirates in the 2000s. The business, legal and social implications were complex and far-reaching, but Witt brings the many-layered tale to vibrant life.
Inequality: What Can be Done?, by Anthony Atkinson, Harvard University Press, RRP£19.95/$29.95
Atkinson is the doyen of those scholars who have focused on trends in inequality over the past half-century. In this important book, he focuses not so much on what has happened or why, but on what to do about it, particularly in his own country, the UK. The result is a comprehensive and challenging set of proposals for action, including substantially higher taxation and greater redistribution of wealth. The Labour party, currently bereft of confidence and ideas, needs to study what Prof Atkinson recommends.
The Globalization of Inequality, by François Bourguignon, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton, Princeton University Press, RRP£19.95/$27.95
Bourguignon’s focus is global, not local, and is more on what has happened to inequality than on what to do about it. This makes it a valuable complement to Atkinson’s book. Crucially, Bourguignon points to some good news: inequality has been falling among households at a global level, albeit from extremely high levels, and there have been impressive reductions in the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty.
The Age of Sustainable Development, by Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University Press, RRP£23.95/$34.95
Sachs is a prophet calling upon humanity to create a better world. This would, he argues, have two main characteristics: we would have largely banished the scourges of destitution and disease; and we would have made the activities upon which humanity depends indefinitely sustainable. In Sachs’ view, both of these goals are now eminently attainable — but we are “far off course”.
Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change, by Nicholas Stern, MIT Press, RRP$27.95/£19.95
Lord Stern was author of the eponymous Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change published in 2007. In this follow-up, he argues strongly that we are continuing to underestimate the potential costs of inaction. It is time to take decisive action, he asserts, not only because the costs of failing to do so could be huge, but also because the costs of the needed actions are themselves becoming ever smaller.
Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics, by Richard Thaler, Allen Lane, RRP£20/WW Norton, RRP$27.95
This enjoyable book describes the role of the author in the making of an intellectual counter-revolution: the rise of “behavioural economics”. Not so long ago, right-thinking economists focused their attention on an imaginary species of sociopaths, rational maximisers whom Thaler calls “Econs”. Actual people, however, whom he calls “Humans”, are vastly more interesting. Humans make predictable errors. Thaler explains how much we have learnt about the mistakes we humans are apt to make.
Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, by Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman, Princeton University Press, RRP£19.95/$27.95
We insure our lives against an uncertain future; so why not our planet? That is the question addressed in this lively and thought-provoking book. The challenge of climate change should be seen as one of managing an inherently uncertain future. The authors show that among the possible outcomes of the path we are on are extreme climate changes. Rational and far-sighted policy makers would wish to eliminate such possibilities. Yet if we are to achieve that goal, we need to act now. Only the extremely myopic would behave as if a distant and potentially catastrophic risk were a non-existent one.
American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, by Perry Anderson, Verso, RRP£14.99/$24.95
As a Los Angeles-based Old Etonian Marxist, Anderson brings an outsider’s perspective to the analysis of US foreign policy. His writing is sharp and erudite and even those who do not share his politics will learn from his book.
The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, by Daniel Bell, Princeton University Press, RRP£19.95/$29.95
Bell, a Canadian philosopher based at Tsinghua University in Beijing, argues that there is a “crisis of governance in western democracies” and that China offers a superior model — in which leaders are selected on merit rather than by the electorate. The argument will outrage many western readers, but those who persist will find their assumptions challenged by a thought-provoking and lucid work.
The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis, William Collins, RRP£20/PublicAffairs, RRP$27.99
The book’s thesis is conveyed by its subtitle. Burgis, who worked as an FT correspondent in Africa, presents an unsparing portrait of the corruption that is blighting the continent. He writes that, through his journalism, “I started to see the thread that connects a massacre in a remote African village with the pleasures and comforts that we in the richer parts of the world enjoy.”
A Kim Jong-Il Production, by Paul Fischer, Viking, RRP£14.99/Flatiron Books, RRP$27.99
The story of how the late North Korean dictator kidnapped South Korean cinema’s golden couple, the director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee, and put them to work building a film industry in the North. At once a gripping personal narrative and an insight into the cruelty and madness of North Korea.
Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, Brookings Institution Press, RRP£19.99/$29.95
This entertaining and well-researched biography of Vladimir Putin begins with the Russian president’s now-famous speech in March 2014 celebrating and justifying Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Hill and Gaddy demonstrate that Putin’s background as an intelligence operative has shaped his conspiratorial worldview, as well as the tactics that he deploys.
When the Facts Change: Essays 1995-2010, by Tony Judt, Heinemann, RRP£25/Penguin Press, RRP$29.95
The collected political essays of a brilliant historian who died at the age of 62. Judt’s interests ranged broadly across the Middle East and US foreign policy — but his real specialism was postwar Europe. His fierce intellect, erudition and a willingness to engage in controversy mean that these essays have stood the test of time.
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert Putnam, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20/$28
Putnam, one of America’s leading political scientists, tackles rising inequality in the US and its effect on the American dream. Through a mix of anecdote and data, he shows how the loss of well-paid jobs in manufacturing has wrought social havoc. Reviewing the book in the FT, Francis Fukuyama called it “truly masterful”.
Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the Nation 1974-1987, by Jean Seaton, Profile, RRP£30
A history of just 13 years at the BBC could, in the wrong hands, be little more than an arid institutional story. Seaton’s book, however, is a brilliant piece of political and social history that says a lot about Thatcherism, journalism and the workings of the British establishment.
The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir, by Michael Bundock, Yale University Press, RRP£20/$35
Francis Barber, a Caribbean slave, arrived in England in 1750 to work as the valet of Samuel Johnson, the giant of 18th-century English letters. Their relationship became so close that Johnson, on his death, left Barber the bulk of his estate. Barber’s story receives expert, sensitive treatment in Bundock’s biography.
Charles I and the People of England, by David Cressy, Oxford University Press, RRP£30
Cressy, an Ohio State University historian, is the author of several delightful books on the social history of Tudor and Stuart England that draw on unusual material buried in the archives. Here he investigates what the common people thought of Charles I before the king’s tumultuous reign ended in his execution in 1649.
Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, by Hasia Diner, Yale University Press, RRP£22.50/$35
Diner’s book adds an extra dimension to modern Jewish historical studies. She concentrates on 19th- and early 20th-century migrants who left central and eastern Europe and became peddlers in the Americas and other continents. This is a richly wrought work of cultural and social history from the New York University professor.
A Nation and not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923, by Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile Books, RRP£30
With the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising falling next year, new books on the violent dawn of Irish independence are appearing thick and fast. This outstanding, carefully researched study by Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin, sets the bar high for good writing and scholarship.
Introducing the Ancient Greeks, by Edith Hall, Bodley Head, RRP£20/WW Norton, RRP$26.95
In a book that is both erudite and splendidly entertaining, classics professor Hall identifies 10 defining attributes of the ancient Greeks, ranging from their seafaring skills to their addiction to pleasure.
Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia, by Dominic Lieven, Allen Lane, RRP£25
Aristocratic values, imperial mindsets and the emergence of modern nationalisms are the big themes of this illuminating history of late tsarist Russia by Lieven, professor of Russian studies at the London School of Economics. Here he writes with all the clarity, conviction and fluent command of sources that readers have come to expect of him.
Forests in Revolutionary France: Conservation, Community and Conflict, 1669-1848, by Kieko Matteson, Cambridge University Press, RRP£65/$99
Putting a long span of French history in a new light, environmental historian Matteson explores the struggle between elites and the people over the forests that were a vital resource for Europeans at the dawn of the modern era. A fresh and stimulating study.
Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago, by Gillian O’Brien, University of Chicago Press, RRP$25
The 1889 murder of Patrick Henry Cronin, an Irish-American physician and political activist, was one of the great scandals of late 19th-century US public life. O’Brien, a historian at the UK’s Liverpool John Moores University, recounts the story with enormous verve and gripping detail.
Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution, by Rebecca Spang, Harvard University Press, RRP£25/$39.95
Spang, author of a highly original 2000 book on French history entitled The Invention of the Restaurant, has done it again. The Indiana University historian views the French Revolution from rewardingly new angles by analysing the cultural significance of money in the turbulent years of European war, domestic terror and inflation.
‘They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny, Princeton University Press, RRP£24.95/$35
If you read one book about the 1915 Armenian genocide, make this it. Suny, a University of Michigan professor, is one of the world’s leading scholars on the Caucasus region. His account of the fate that befell the Armenians at Ottoman Turkish hands is harrowingly detailed and scrupulously objective.
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Pioneers Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, by Jonathan Eig, Macmillan, RRP£16.99 / WW Norton, RRP$27.95
Eig, an American journalist, charts the development of the birth control pill with wit, verve and scholarly research. It is sadly appropriate that a man should have written this history of female contraception — a field dominated by male scientists, doctors and politicians.
The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way It Is?, by Nick Lane, Profile, RRP£25
Biochemist Lane offers a scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life, emphasising the interplay between energy and evolution. He shows how simple microbes, which monopolised Earth for the first 2bn years, took the momentous step towards becoming the “eukaryotic” cells that then evolved into animals, plants, fungi and protozoa.
The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat, by Tim Spector, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£14.99
The microbiome, the population of 100tn or so microbes inside the human body, has a huge influence on our health, which science is only now beginning to understand. Spector has written the best of a bunch of good new books about our microbial guests, focusing on their role in promoting healthy digestion and avoiding disease.
Rust: The Longest War, by Jonathan Waldman, Simon & Schuster, RRP£16.99 / $26.95
Rust is on the margins of science writing but I include it in my round-up because it is so entertaining. Waldman, a US journalist, follows a colourful cast of characters as they fight rust, exploit it or both. We learn a bit about the chemistry of corrosion and a lot about human nature.
To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, by Steven Weinberg, Allen Lane, RRP£20/ Harper, RRP$28.99
Weinberg, the pre-eminent theoretical physicist alive today, has written a fine history of science, particularly physics and astronomy, over the past 2,500 years. What makes To Explain the World stand out is the way he illuminates ancient Greek, Islamic and medieval European science from a contemporary viewpoint.
The Ugly Game: The Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup, by Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, Simon & Schuster, RRP£18.99 /$24.95
An account of how Qatar won the right to host the football World Cup of 2022, by the Sunday Times journalists who broke many elements of the current Fifa scandal. The book is particularly topical given the Swiss and US investigations into Fifa.
Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga, by Ronald Reng translated by James Hawes, Simon & Schuster, RRP£18.99
Through a biography of the mostly forgotten German football manager Heinz Höher, Reng tells the story not just of 50 years of postwar German football but also of postwar German life. The book is a shade too long, but offers many unexpected glimpses of German football history, including ritual negotiations over backhanders and stories of match-fixing.
Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession, by William Skidelsky, Yellow Jersey, RRP£16.99
This is tennis’s answer to Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch: Skidelsky, an obsessive fan, describes how the beauty of Roger Federer’s game helped restore him to mental health. The book is particularly strong on Federer’s place in tennis history — and funny about Rafael Nadal, Federer’s nemesis.
Alfred Hitchcock, by Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, RRP£12.99
Ever ferreting out the best details, this short and engrossing biography of the much-examined director tells us, for example, that Hitch would often appear to be asleep on set. Was he actually asleep, or bored? Communing? But with what? Hitch emerges as a supremely Ackroyd kind of guy: showman, fantasist, detail freak, ever poised between art and commerce.
John Hughes: A Life in Film, by Kirk Honeycutt, Race Point, RRP$40
Giant coffee-table tribute to the oddly under-discussed John Hughes (1950-2009), who remains ceaselessly influential as a writer, producer and director. Colourfully and sweetly extolling his work — The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink — with emphasis justifiably on Hughes’s compassion for teenagers.
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, by Chris Taylor, Head of Zeus, RRP£20
Compulsive hardback tracing the $37bn space-fantasy force majeure from its origins (lonely swot George Lucas’s scribbled notes) to now (global anticipation of the December release of Episode VII — The Force Awakens). Taylor’s fan-love continually slips and slides into the messianic but the subject insists on it. For facts, gossip, and hours-engulfing poolside analysis, look no further.
Why Acting Matters, by David Thomson, Yale University Press, RRP£16.99/$25
In a book that is part manifesto, part historical guide, the greatest living film critic argues that acting — on screen, in life — is instinctive, and discusses the techniques of Brando and Olivier, among others. Astonishingly clever and idiosyncratic, as ever Thomson pulls no punches: “the only honourable reality is that of pretending . . . ”
Paul Gauguin, edited by Raphaël Bouvier and Martin Schwander, Hatje Cantz, RRP€68
The most beautiful and scholarly exhibition catalogue of the year: a lavish documentation (in English) of the Fondation Beyeler’s landmark Gauguin retrospective this spring, which gathered not only well-known masterpieces from collections worldwide but also rarely shown privately owned works. Extensive archive photographs complement an illuminating text.
My Dear BB: The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925-59, edited by Robert Cumming, Yale University Press, RRP£25/$45
A meeting of minds between the flamboyant connoisseur and the distinguished critic and Civilisation presenter (“I do programmes on television now . . . Heaven knows what il popolo make of them”). Gossipy, funny, outrageously snobby, as perceptive about people as about art, a contribution to social history, and a moving record of a deep friendship.
Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, by Catherine Lampert, Thames & Hudson, RRP£19.95/$40
Fresh, gripping and generously illustrated, this portrait of one of the most significant living figurative painters is as close to a biography as the reclusive Auerbach would allow. Lampert has sat for the artist for nearly 40 years and conveys the rhythm of his work, life, thought, speech.
Paul Cézanne: Drawings and Watercolours, by Christopher Lloyd, Thames & Hudson, RRP£24.95
The story, as Cézanne’s friend Joachim Gasquet wrote, of “the most acute sensibility at grips with the most searching rationality”, told through a far-ranging account of the artist’s great watercolours. Even connoisseurs will find something new in this exquisite volume, produced in compact reading-book format and perfect for browsing in bed or on the beach.
African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence, edited by Manuel Herz, Park Books, RRP€68
Documenting the grand, optimistic architecture of the post-independence era in Africa, this gorgeous book (with photos by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster) introduces us to an extraordinary collection of unfamiliar buildings. Their ambitious Modernism was meant to herald a new era; their subsequent neglect and decay tell another story. Yet these structures still dictate the public space and image of many African cities — indeed, they have survived partly because of the poverty and dysfunctional systems that surround them.
The Images of Architects, edited by Valerio Olgiati, The Name Books, RRP$36
Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati asked his fellow practitioners to submit the images that had most influenced them. The results included not only photographs of buildings, but also portraits, paintings, billboards and landscapes. The first edition became a bit of a cult and sold out; now Olgiati’s book is now available again in a redesigned version. Flip through it on the terrace and see if it inspires.
White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, by Sharon Rotbard, Pluto Press, RRP£14.99/MIT Press, RRP$24.95
This fascinating book charts the invention of an Israeli narrative of Tel Aviv as a “Bauhaus” Modernist city as a means of differentiating it from neighbouring Jaffa, portrayed as a dark, shady city of the Orient. Rotbard, an Israeli architect and academic, reminds us that not only architecture but also architectural history is always political.
Melancholy and Architecture: On Aldo Rossi, by Diogo Seixas Lopes, Park Books, RRP€38/University of Chicago Press, RRP$49
Modern architecture is usually associated with utopian idealism but Italian Postmodernist Aldo Rossi had a more sombre temperament. Drawing on the dreamlike paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, he imbued his designs with a sense of immense sadness and the weight of history. In this study of Rossi, Seixas Lopes introduces us to the dark side of architecture, where form doesn’t always follow function.
Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth, by John Szwed, Heinemann, RRP£20/Viking, RRP$28.95
Myths about musicians are usually more interesting than the musicians themselves. Not so in Billie Holiday’s case. In his short book, “the story of her art” rather than a biography, Szwed marks the centenary of the singer’s birth with an insightful survey of her groundbreaking music and tumultuous personal life.
Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing, by Tracey Thorn, Virago, RRP£16.99
In the follow-up to her prizewinning memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, Everything But The Girl’s Thorn writes about singing, inspired by her ambivalent relationship with the craft that has defined her life. The book, named after a stage-fright-induced nightmare, is a supple blend of cultural history, biology, music criticism and autobiography.
A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, RRP£20/Little, Brown, RRP$28
In her 2013 novel Life After Life Atkinson followed one woman through multiple possible lives. This sort-of sequel focuses on the woman’s brother, and counterpoints his wartime experiences as a bomber pilot with his resolutely unremarkable peacetime life. A celebration of quiet heroism, told with great formal skill and narrative panache.
The Green Road, by Anne Enright, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99/WW Norton, RRP$26.95
Like The Gathering, Enright’s 2007 Booker winner, The Green Road centres on a family reunion. This time it’s the Madigans — matriarch Rosaleen and her four children, rendered variously dysfunctional by their mother’s self-centredness. Enright explores their lives and dissects their foibles with warmth, wit and a complete lack of sentimentality.
All Involved, by Ryan Gattis, Picador, RRP£12.99/Ecco, RRP$27
For six days in 1992, Los Angeles rioted, the police retreated and the city’s gangs ran wild. Gattis’s novel traces one particular thread of gangland vengeance amid the chaos; it’s gripping stuff, sometimes gruellingly violent, but, thanks to its LA-based author’s extensive research, also utterly convincing.
Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh, John Murray, RRP£20
The first two books in Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy were widely acclaimed; the third instalment does not disappoint. Flood of Fire is an engrossing historical novel, cleverly drawing together the saga’s scattered characters as the first opium war with China looms. Ghosh’s vivid prose, studded with historical slang, lends additional authenticity.
At Hawthorn Time, by Melissa Harrison, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99
Set in a present-day English village, Harrison’s second novel is a striking hybrid, combining clear-eyed nature writing with an absorbing tale of characters on a (literal) collision course. An unsentimental yet compassionate portrait of rural England, from nightjars and cuckoo pint to hot-cars and mega-warehouses.
Neverhome, by Laird Hunt, Chatto & Windus, RRP£12.99/Little, Brown, RRP$26
Worried that her husband is too weak to fight, Constance Thompson disguises herself as a man and enlists on the Union side in the American civil war. In Hunt’s novel she narrates — how reliably we do not know — the story of her life as a warrior and her hard road back home; the result is gritty, lyrical and compelling.
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber, RRP£20/Knopf, RRP$26.95
Even for a genre-hopper such as Ishiguro, his first novel in 10 years was a surprise: a fantasy set in a mist-shrouded England not long after Roman times, complete with a dragon and an ageing Sir Gawain. With its memorable imagery and measured prose, the book is an extended reflection on historical memory and forgetting.
The Laughing Monsters, by Denis Johnson, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, RRP$25
“Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart.” Such is the appeal of west Africa for Roland, the damaged, dodgy narrator of Johnson’s spy novel. He’s no James Bond; and this complex and disquieting book is a clever and oblique take on the scramble for resources in today’s Africa.
10:04, by Ben Lerner, Granta, RRP£14.99/Faber, RRP$25
For his second novel, New York-based writer Lerner has written about a New York writer who is supposed to be writing his, yes, second novel. It sounds unbearably arch; but Lerner carries off his conceit with aplomb, thanks to his intelligence, seriousness and gift for social satire. “A quietly brilliant example of postmodern self-reflexivity,” wrote Randy Boyagoda in his FT review.
Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish, Oneworld, RRP£14.99/Tyrant, RRP$15
A traumatised Iraq veteran and a fugitive Chinese immigrant find love against the odds in a gritty New York neighbourhood. You know it won’t end well, and some readers detect miserabilism; others are swept away by this debut novel’s unfailingly vivid and engaged portrait of life on the margins of society.
Pleasantville, by Attica Locke, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£14.99/Harper, RRP$26.99
Black Water Rising, Locke’s impressive debut, was set during the early Reagan era and had as its protagonist Houston lawyer Jay Porter. Pleasantville picks up his story in 1996, when an election that could give Houston its first black mayor is complicated by a murder investigation. Locke fluently blends detective novel tropes with a gripping study of a community on the threshold of real political power.
Girl at War, by Sara Nović, Little, Brown, RRP£14.99/Random House, RRP$26
The girl in question is Ana, who is 10 when Yugoslavia starts to tear itself apart. Told from Ana’s perspective, Nović’s powerful debut novel is an unflinching study of the traumas of civil war, and of their legacy years later, as the grown-up Ana struggles to put her past behind her in the US.
The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma, One, RRP£14.99/Little, Brown, RRP$26
When their father moves away, four brothers in Nigeria consider themselves released from his ambitions for them: instead of studying for lives in the professions, they play truant and spend their time fishing. But even in the 1990s, old superstitions — in the form of a madman’s prophecy — can poison seemingly solid relationships. A masterly debut.
Honeydew, by Edith Pearlman, John Murray, RRP£16.99/Little, Brown, RRP$25
The short stories collected here range widely in their length, their setting and their characters, but all display what Claire Messud, writing in the FT, called an “essentially buoyant vision of life”. Pearlman does not shy away from suffering, but her quiet insistence on the potential for hope and beauty gives these tales their distinctive charge.
Quicksand, by Steve Toltz, Sceptre, RRP£17.99
If anything can go wrong, it will — and it inevitably does so in the vicinity of Aldo Benjamin, Quicksand’s luckless protagonist. Toltz’s first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, was shortlisted for the Booker in 2008; his funny, dark, formidable follow-up is a garrulous meditation on fate, religion and male misbehaviour.
A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler, Chatto & Windus, RRP£18.99/Knopf, RRP$25.95
Tyler returns to her usual Baltimore milieu for her 20th novel, another insightful study of family life. It may be familiar territory for the writer, but she commands it absolutely: this shrewd, warm, wryly humorous tale was on the shortlist for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Fiction in translation
The Bamboo Stalk, by Saud Alsanousi, translated by Jonathan Wright, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, RRP£16.99
The second novel by Kuwaiti-born Alsanousi won critical acclaim, including the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, for engaging with themes seldom dealt with in fiction from the Gulf — notably, the fate of the region’s migrant underclass, and the ethical conundrums its existence creates for some of the more liberal-minded citizens.
June, by Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmer, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99
On the same day in 1969 when the Netherlands’ Queen Juliana visits a Dutch village, a reckless driver runs over a local girl called Hanne. In Bakker’s tender and compassionate examination of memory, the reverberations of that tragic event are still felt 35 years later, as Hanne’s now middle-aged brothers struggle to come to terms with the damage caused all those years ago.
Seiobo There Below, by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet, Tuskar Rock Press, RRP£16.99/New Directions, RRP$17.95
A series of interlinking stories are at the heart of this novel by the winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. From a young Renaissance painter completing a commission to a group of conservators painstakingly restoring a 14th-century statue of the Buddha, one of Hungary’s most outstanding authors creates moving meditations on beauty and our responses to it.
The Four Books, by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas, Chatto & Windus, RRP£16.99/Grove Press, RRP$27
Banned in mainland China, Yan’s novel is set in a “re-education camp” in northern China between 1958 and 1962 — the years when Mao’s Great Leap Forward led to the collapse of agriculture and the death of over 40m people from starvation. A powerful satire on ideology, veering between the grotesque and the horrific.
The Dirty Dust: Cré na Cille, by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, translated by Alan Titley, Yale University Press, RRP£16.99/$25
Hailed by Colm Tóibín not only as “the greatest novel to be written in the Irish language” but also “among the best books to come out of Ireland in the 20th century”, this long-overdue translation of Ó Cadhain’s classic revels delightfully in the gossip of village life as a cemetery’s inhabitants engage in lively conversation.
When the Doves Disappeared, by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola M Rogers, Atlantic Books, RRP£12.99
Award-winning Finnish-Estonian novelist Oksanen offers an excoriating dramatisation of the deceits and betrayals that occurred as the Soviet Union, then Germany, then the Soviet Union again occupied and controlled the Baltic states during and after the second world war. What moral compromises are individuals capable of, she asks readers, when survival is at stake?
The All Saints’ Day Lovers, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99
The latest offering by Colombia’s Impac Prize-winning author is a collection of short stories mostly set in the Belgian Ardennes. The location may be unexpected for someone whose earlier work concentrated on his home turf, but these stories of adultery, thwarted intimacy and loss pulsate as ever with regret, desire and barely contained violence.
Wolf, Wolf: A Novel, by Eben Venter, translated by Michiel Heyns, Scribe, RRP£14.99
A familiar narrative setting — a patriarch lies dying as his estranged children squabble over his inheritance — is given some added twists in a scathing work by one the most highly regarded Afrikaans novelists. There are few sympathetic characters in this study of the new South Africa.
Breezeway, by John Ashbery, Carcanet, RRP£9.99 / Ecco, RRP$22.99
Ashbery’s thoughts make leaps to the extent that one wonders whether he has been playing with some randomising software, or simply recording those connections made only in the space between wakefulness and sleep. His acrobatic, jazz-like, playful verse merits multiple readings.
Search Party, by George the Poet, Virgin Books, RRP£9.99
The spoken-word artist’s first collection is a direct, open plea to kids dealing with life on harsh estates — like the one where he grew up in northwest London — and to those, in power or on the street, who carelessly categorise them. His verse is disarmingly earnest, with an unwavering focus on political and social reality that gives this the air of that rare thing: an honest manifesto.
Sentenced to Life, by Clive James, Picador, RRP£14.99
The title captures James’s approach to his poor health in recent years. In poems no less affecting for their accessibility, a heightened awareness of mortality hovers over reflections on how he has spent his life: time is precious when looking ahead; torturous looking back. James is generous in sharing the hard-earned lessons of his experience.
Alive: New and Selected Poems, by Elizabeth Willis, NYRB Poets, RRP£9.99/$14
The US poet has a gift for achieving poignancy through juxtaposition and a deceptively light touch. Her tone is a rare combination of resistance, resilience and vulnerability, in poems that cover subjects from Christina Rossetti (“Kiss Me Deadly”) to implicit verdicts on the flawed patterns of human behaviour (“The Witch”, “Survey”).
Escape From Baghdad!, by Saad Hossain, Unnamed Press, RRP$16
Hossain throws everything into his salty, satirical novel, from super-powered vigilantes to Islamic mysticism to the Ancient Greek Furies. Post-invasion Iraq is depicted as a failed free-for-all state where the crazier you are, the more the madness makes sense. Comparisons with Catch-22 are not inapt.
Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson, Borough Press, RRP£20 / William Morrow, RRP$35
Stephenson’s dense, detailed epic shows humankind struggling to save what it can of itself against a ticking-clock doomsday deadline; then, 5,000 years later, returning to a ruined Earth to rebuild. The scope of Seveneves is breathtaking, the suspense tremendous, the execution faultless.
The Devil’s Detective, by Simon Kurt Unsworth, Del Rey, RRP£12.99
A police procedural set in Hell, this fiendishly good debut marks Unsworth out as a talent to watch. A serial killer stalks an infernal realm where bureaucracy and drudgery are the modern torments of the damned.
Woman of the Dead, by Bernhard Aichner, translated by Anthea Bell, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£14.99/Simon & Schuster, RRP$26
Aichner is one of the stars of Austrian crime fiction. This strongly written bestseller synthesises elements from Kill Bill and the Lisbeth Salander books to grimly mesmerising effect.
Tell No Tales, by Eva Dolan, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99
Peterborough as a setting for edgy crime fiction? An unlikely proposition, but Dolan pulled it off in her acclaimed debut Long Way Home, and does it again with Ferreira and Zigic, coppers from the Hate Crimes Unit, who find themselves adrift in a world of shifting values.
The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, by Antonia Hodgson, Hodder, RRP£14.99
Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea was a breath of bitingly pungent air in the historical crime genre. In this splendid follow-up, Tom Hawkins has survived the rigours of the debtors’ prison, but bad luck again dogs his footsteps when he is found guilty of murder.
World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane, Little, Brown, RRP£16.99/William Morrow, RRP$27.99
Mystic River confirmed Lehane as one of the most skilful of American writers, but it proved a tough act to follow. Lehane, however, is on top form with this one. Mobster Joe Coughlin has thrived in a town built on corruption, but a violent reckoning is approaching.
In Darkling Wood, by Emma Carroll, Faber, RRP£6.99
While her little brother recovers from surgery, Alice is sent to live with her grumpy Grandmother Nell in a country cottage menaced by encroaching trees. But when Nell plans to have them cut down, this displeases not just the locals, but possibly the fairies, too. A tender tale of family ghosts and secrets.
Arena 13, by Joseph Delaney, Bodley Head, RRP£12.99
Delaney’s new series after his bestselling Spook’s saga introduces Leif, a provincial lad who runs away to Gindeen city to join the ranks of teenage gladiators fighting alongside sentient automata called “lacs”. Part futuristic dystopia, part Roman epic fantasy, it’s gutsy, gory and compelling.
The Door that Led to Where, by Sally Gardner, Hot Key, RRP£10.99
A troubled London teenager finds the key to a door that opens on to the year 1830. It has to be sealed permanently to stop the traffic of historical artefacts, but which side will he decide to remain on? Juxtaposing gangs, drugs and top hats, it’s another gem from prizewinning author Gardner.
The Terrible Two, by Mac Barnett and Jory John, Amulet Books RRP£8.99/$13.95
Schoolboy Miles Murphy thinks he is the greatest practical joker ever, until he moves to Yawnee Valley and meets his nemesis, Niles Sparks. Rivalry turns to friendship in an engaging story about the fine art of pranking and the virtue of collaboration.
The 13-Storey Treehouse, by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, Macmillan, RRP£5.99
Looking for the next Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants or Tom Gates? Look no further. This rambunctious Australian offering has little in the way of plot but plenty of gags, digressions, postmodern self-awareness, and freewheeling imagination. The titular treehouse, a fusion of theme park and supervillain lair, is every kid’s dream.
Anyone But Ivy Pocket, by Caleb Krisp, Bloomsbury, RRP£10.99
The Moonstone meets Harry Potter in a Victorian-era romp featuring ghosts, parallel worlds and creepy hooded dwarfs. Heroine Ivy Pocket is a wonderful creation, dauntless, self-deluded, never letting her own poor judgment or rejection by others stand in her way.
The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine, by Akiyuki Nosaka, Pushkin Children’s Books, RRP£9.99
First English translation of a 2003 Japanese story collection that draws on the author’s childhood experiences of the firebombing of Kobe in 1945. Amid the madness of war, humans and animals make tentative, half-understood connections. Every tale strikes a plaintive, melancholic note.
A White Butterfly, by Laurie Cohen and Barbara Ortelli, Minedition, RRP£10.99/$12.99
This board book explores colours and their associations. With die-cutting, embossing and a dash of prismatic silver ink, it’s a lavish, lovely looking product. A compellingly simple text is illuminated by illustrations in a style reminiscent of Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar).
The Book With No Pictures, by BJ Novak, Puffin, RRP£12.99
As the title suggests, the services of an illustrator were not employed. Instead, US actor-comedian Novak’s witty work relies entirely on text and typesetting. It’s a bedtime book best read aloud by an adult who doesn’t mind having to follow embarrassing instructions and sing silly songs.
How Things Work, by Okido, Thames & Hudson, RRP£12.95/$18.95
From the makers of the bimonthly kids’ magazine Okido comes this beautifully designed, fact-packed compendium. With charts, games, puzzles, quizzes, make-it-yourself projects and Where’s Wally?-style picture searches, this is manna for the inquisitive young mind.
Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land, by Robert Crawford, Jonathan Cape, RRP£25 / Farrar, Straus & Giroux, RRP$35
Crawford’s exhaustive account of TS Eliot’s early years anatomises everything the great poet absorbed from his school and university days to form what FT reviewer John Sutherland called “the extraordinarily well-stocked mind that gave birth to The Waste Land”.
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon, Hutchinson, RRP£25 / Random House, RRP$30
Although the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter overlapped by just 10 days, the parallels drawn out in this innovative dual biography reveal fascinating similarities between the groundbreaking writers.
The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964, by Zachary Leader, Jonathan Cape, RRP£35 / Knopf, RRP$40
The first of a projected two-volume life of the US literary titan. With access to unpublished material and greater detail than past efforts, academic Leader creates an empathetic picture of a writer whose reputation has dipped since his death in 2005.
Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20
Acclaimed nature and landscape writer Macfarlane has written a book about writing about nature and landscape. Turning his attention to the words we have accumulated for the natural world, Macfarlane has created a moving, fascinating book.
The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, by James Rebanks, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99
Part shepherd’s calendar, part memoir, part encomium for fell farming, Rebank’s book follows the four seasons to tell Cumbria’s agricultural history. Rebank, shepherd and Oxford history graduate from a line of sheep farmers, has a powerful prose style and his book, wrote the FT’s reviewer, is “utterly unsentimental . . . profoundly moving”.
Young US writer Russell’s debut essay collection fizzes with great writing as he meets a washed-up ice hockey player, a contemporary Robinson Crusoe and a self-immuniser in Wisconsin who has conditioned his body to withstand snake venom. The essays, exploring modern manhood, cohere into a memoir-like whole.
John Aubrey: My Own Life, by Ruth Scurr, Chatto & Windus, RRP£25
An experimental “act of scholarly imagination” brings to life the 17th-century antiquarian and author of Brief Lives, John Aubrey. Constructed as a first-person diary, Scurr’s book illuminates and poignantly captures the voice of a man more often a “ghostly record keeper” in his own writing.
Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot, by Mark Vanhoenacker, Chatto & Windus, RRP£16.99/Knopf, RRP$25.95
Hasn’t everyone at some point looked up at a distant plane and longed to be a pilot? Vanhoenacker is a senior first officer with British Airways and his book about the realities of that job will do nothing to dispel the longing. He invites readers with him on to the flight deck, describing the minutiae of flight with a degree of detail that would be nerdy were it not for the poetry of his writing.
Beside the Sea: Britain’s Lost Seaside Heritage, by Sarah Freeman, Aurum Press, RRP£25
Many of Britain’s coastal resorts are enjoying new investment and growing visitor numbers, but they remain a shadow of what they were in their heyday, a century ago. This quirky book reveals the forgotten details of that period — from the ethically dubious mud-hut village that was home to 70 Somalis in Marine Gardens, Portobello, to the dispute over the origin of the “ninety-nine” ice-cream.
The Italians, by John Hooper, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Viking, RRP$28.95
This portrait of a nation is required reading for anyone heading to a Tuscan villa or Puglian beach this summer. The author, a Rome-based correspondent for the Economist and the Guardian, unravels the country’s “peculiar” history, the tension between past glories and miseries, and looks at what has become of the archetypal big, close-knit Italian family. Hooper calls it “the book that I would like to have been able to read when I first came to work in Italy”.
Alpe d’Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling’s Greatest Climb, by Peter Cossins, Aurum Press, RRP£16.99
The start of the Tour de France, next weekend, always coincides with the publication of a rash of biographies and autobiographies of star riders past and present. This is different — a biography of the most mythologised climb in the history of the race, the road that rises from Bourg d’Oisans to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez, whose 21 hairpin bends become the “Glastonbury of cycling” when the race is on.
Nanban: Japanese Soul Food, by Tim Anderson, Square Peg, RRP£25
In the UK, our understanding of Japanese food seems to stretch from sushi to ramen and straight back again. Anderson is a chef with a wonderful nerd’s enthusiasm for what he calls “Japanese soul food”. Entertaining, erudite, and with accessible recipes.
Spring: The Cookbook, by Skye Gyngell, Quadrille, RRP£25
Following a hitherto largely American trend, Gyngell’s latest beautifully designed book has fewer recipes and more of the fascinating story of launching her restaurant. If, like me, you’re tired of collections of recipes you’ll never cook, then let’s hope we see more of this kind of thing.
Chicken: Over Two Hundred Recipes Devoted to One Glorious Bird, by Catherine Phipps, Ebury Press, RRP£20
It’s rare to find a book that you know is going to be on your shelves forever but this chicken bible is just that. Phipps is obsessively diligent in her recipe work, which is reassuring, but it’s the constant presence of her idiosyncratic voice that makes this book a delight.
Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome, by Rachel Roddy, Saltyard Books, RRP£25
This impossibly stylish snapshot of a life none of us will ever lead (tiny, ramshackle though strangely glamorous flat in Rome) could easily have been irritating were not Roddy’s writing superb and her recipes brilliant.
How To Eat Outside: Fabulous Al Fresco Food for BBQs, Bonfires, Camping and More, by Genevieve Taylor, Bantam Press, RRP£17.99
So many men, myself included, have written about cooking outdoors with fire that you might have thought it was just for the boys. Taylor gives the lie to that assumption with a joyful collection of outdoor recipes.
A Natural History of English Gardening: 1650-1800, by Mark Laird, Yale University Press, RRP£45
Mark Laird, the great landscape historian, gives a superb narrative about the plants, events, people and studies that form the backdrop of English gardening, from John Evelyn to Gilbert White. Exquisite contemporary illustrations support his prose.
Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-seeding Plants, by Jonas Reif, Christian Kress and Jürgen Becker, Timber Press, RRP$40
A century or so ago, a “chaos garden” would have been recognised as a form of wild garden by those who followed the prolific writer William Robinson. But regardless of how new the idea is, skill and knowledge are needed for those who want romantic gorgeousness rather than a sprawling mess. This book explains, simply and unchaotically, how to achieve the former.