It seems there’ll be an abundance of time to indulge in some quality reading over the coming weeks — and an even greater need for some escapism. 2021 is already shaping up to be an incredible year for fiction, and the slate of upcoming novels this January are packed with promise, from Kate Mosse’s latest work of historical fiction to a thoroughly modern love story set on the streets of New York. Here, we’ve rounded up our pick of the new fiction books to keep you entertained and enthralled throughout the lockdown.
Pan Macmillan (£12.99)
The debut novel from the New York-based writer has already garnered high praise from the likes of Zadie Smith and Queenie author Candice Carty-Williams for its brilliant tale of a young woman’s stumbling through life and love.
Protagonist Edie is 23, bored and endlessly choosing the wrong men when she meets white, middle-aged Eric, whose wife has agreed to an open-marriage. With understated wit and full of tenderness, Leilani sharply unpacks the experience of navigating sexual and racial politics as a young black woman.
The first work of fiction from the co-winner of the inaugural #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize has been much-anticipated, and early reviews suggest this won’t disappoint. Moving between present-day London and 1960s Uganda, the novel follows two men as they navigate racial tensions, generational divides and family obligation.
In Uganda, we meet Hasan, who having just managed to find his footing following the death of his wife, is confronted with a wave of prejudice and hate as a new political regime takes hold. Meanwhile, 60 years later and in the heart of London, a young lawyer, Sameer, is required to return home due to a family tragedy, and quickly discovers that the key to his future may well be in his family’s past.
For protagonist Lex Grace, escaping from her parents’ House of Horrors — and consequently earning the moniker Girl A — was the best thing that happened to her, and also something she firmly wants to leave in the past. But when her abusive mother dies in prison and leaves the house to her and her six siblings, Lex can no longer outrun the past.
Combining a page-turning thriller with a heart-wrenching tale of survival, Abigail Dean’s novel is a complex examination of childhood trauma. In fact, the book is in such high demand that TV rights have already been snapped up by Sony Pictures.
Quercus Publishing (£16.99)
For Robert Jones Jr, this debut novel marks a move from his blogging presence as Son of Baldwin into the literary arena — and critics are welcoming the entry. Set on a plantation known as Empty in the antebellum American South, Jones Jr imagines the love story of two enslaved men, Isaiah and Samuel. Able to escape the horrors of the plantation in their haven together in a barn, the mens’ happiness is threatened when a fellow slave guesses at their secret and betrays them to the owner, Massa Paul.
While the novel chiefly follows this story, it also interweaves poetic sections written from the perspective of seven ancestors and scenes with the matriarchal African tribe from which the plantation’s slaves were taken. An epic work lyrically written, the novel confronts readers with the horrors of slavery as well as the fraught relationship between Black LGBTQ communities and Christianity.
Following his recent success writing scripts for Steve McQueen’s highly praised BBC series Small Axe, Courttia Newland’s latest novel offers a timely and poignant examination of social inequality, love and truth. A River Called Time is set in a world where slavery and colonialism never happened, meaning that Europe’s relationship with Africa was based on the premise of opportunities to learn rather than exploit. As a result, African magical abilities have grown and become a world religion.
This hasn’t exactly led to a global paradise — in Dinium, the novel’s version of London, society is divided between the elite, who are offered refuge on The Ark, and the masses who are left to live in the city’s squalor, unless they can prove that they deserve the alternative. Markriss Denny is determined to make it on board, and while a special power earns him his entry, it could also mean catastrophe for humanity.
Things are not what they seem in CK McDonnell’s world. His debut novel takes us into the offices of The Stranger Times, a weekly newspaper that promises to investigate weird and inexplicable incidents around the world, but in reality is being lazily run by a drunkard editor and his team of misfits.
But when the latest assistant editor Hannah experiences a tragedy in her first week on the job, The Stranger Times team is forced to put in some actual work, only to discover that a number of the stories they’d previously dismissed as preposterous may well be true. A delicious mix of dark wit and conspiracy theories, McDonnell’s novel is a timely look at the fragile lines between truth and fiction.
For her third novel, London-based writer Olivia Sudjic is concerned with exploring borders in all their forms, and the way in which they dictate our lives. When the protagonist Anya is driving from London to Provence with her partner Luke, she is preoccupied with doubts about the relationship, yet upon arrival he proposes, and she hears herself accepting.
With wedding planning doing little to quash her unease, Anya wonders whether her childhood escape from Sarajevo, the wartorn capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has left her unable to find peace with any sense of security. With social convention compelling her to return to the city, she must confront her past and deal with the consequences. Intricately written, this is a brief but intense read.
The tragi-comic second novel from Jasper Gibson focuses on Tom, a once-promising young law student who, following a psychotic episode, is now part of the British mental health system and host to a new voice in his head.
The voice belongs to the Octopus God, who promises to guide him while simultaneously oscillating between cruelty and compassion. But when another episode leads to Tom taking part in an experimental drug trial that will get rid of the voice, no one is prepared for the consequences. This brave work is as moving as it is intriguing, earning praise from the likes of Douglas Stuart, author of the Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain.
Simon and Schuster (£12.99)
Set in modern day India, Megha Majumdar’s debut novel presents the tale of three characters whose hopes and dreams for the future are irrevocably rocked by a terrorist attack that catches them all in its aftermath. Jivan, a poor Muslim girl, is accused of helping the terrorists and faces a possible death sentence as a result. Lovely, a hijra — part of the South Asian intersex community — who was being tutored by Jivan, has an alibi that would free her, but with dreams of becoming a Bollywood star, wrestles with losing everything as a price for telling the truth. And then there’s PT Sir, Jivan’s ex-gym teacher whose rise in Hindu nationalist politics is tied to Jivan’s downfall.
Told from each character’s perspective, the novel appears to be as much an examination of the current US political situation as the Indian. Released in the US at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Majumdar acknowledged the eerie resemblance between the police brutality in her work and that being protested on the streets of American cities.
Pan Macmillan (£20)
Following her bestselling hit The Burning Chambers, Kate Mosse’s much-anticipated second installment promises to offer as much captivating historical drama as her first.
We rejoin Minou and her family in France in June 1572, where a precarious peace is being negotiated after the devastation of 10 years of the Wars of Religion. The unity of France all depends on the marriage between the Catholic Crown and Henri, the Huguenot king of Navarre. Minou is invited to attend this historic wedding, unaware that it’ll lead to the splitting of her family and the disappearance of one of her children. A worthy follow-up to her 2019 success, The City of Tears delivers an enthralling tale of revenge, family and survival against the thrilling backdrop of 16th century France and all its twists.
Faber & Faber (£6.99)
The author whose first two novels, Lanny and Grief Is the Thing With Feathers earned him plenty of praise from critics, makes a bold entrance into the new year with this short, lyrical work about the final days of the famed artist.
We meet Bacon on his deathbed in Madrid, haunted by the work he knows he will leave unfinished. In reality, Bacon received no visitors in his final six days, which he spent in intensive care with only his nurse, Sister Mercedes. He’d travelled to the Spanish city against his doctor’s advice to visit his last great love, José Capelo, who ended up being the subject of Bacon’s final triptych of paintings. Yet Porter boldly imagines what Bacon said to Sister Mercedes during that time, and as a result draws together seven poetic episodes that reveal his past and dreams of paintings never to be done.
Faber & Faber (£16.99)
The Booker Prize-winning author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North returns with his eighth novel, a magical realist story about love, vanishing and ecological disaster.
Set against the backdrop of Australia’s devastating bushfires last year, 87-year-old Francie is in hospital and ready to die, but her three children are determined that she should survive — each for their own reasons. Around the family, everything is vanishing: Francie’s possessions are looted by her sons as she herself fades away, her daughter Anna disappears into social media before eventually starting to lose her own body parts — a finger, a knee — and meanwhile Australia begins to vanish, too.
For her blockbuster debut, Ashley Audrian doesn’t shy away from the difficult conversations, but instead dives right in. The Push is a no-holds-barred examination of motherhood and the insecurities, fears and traumas that are passed down the generations. The protagonist, Blythe, drives the narrative as she recalls her own journey to motherhood, the events that led to her divorce and, as a result, her own daughter seemingly finding a better maternal figure in her new stepmother.
This exploration requires looking at her experience with her own mother, the icy and unloving Cecilia, and in turn, Cecilia’s experience with hers, who we discover was abusive. In doing so, Audrain brings to light with an unsettling intensity the fears all new mothers feel, the internal battle to understand inherited traumas and the desperation to do things differently this time around.
In her first novel, Susie Yang combines a coming-of-age story, a romantic tragedy and a fresh take on the immigrant experience to great effect. Set in Boston, Chinese immigrant Ivy Lin is desperate to escape the confines of her family home in a low-income apartment complex and assimilate with her American classmates, much to her parents’ disapproval. Luckily, Ivy has help from her grandmother, who teaches the teenager to shoplift to get the things she believes she needs to fit in and be accepted.
Years later, a grown-up Ivy bumps into the white American golden boy from her school years, who happens to be the son of a prominent political family. But as romance ensues, Ivy can’t quite forget her lower-class school friend Roux, and when a ghost from the past rears its head, the perfect life she’s built is quickly put at risk.
Neurodiverse author and advocate Madeleine Ryan makes her fiction debut with this sharply written novel about a young autistic woman’s experience at a house party. Moving between feeling alienated and deeply connected to the party’s guests, the young woman lets us into her mind and the unique perceptions she is able to make.
Witty, deeply self-aware, and always honest, the protagonist’s view ultimately leads to a number of unexpected revelations for us all about love and relationships. It’s a heart-warming and moving read, with a much-needed positioning of the neurodiverse in the centre of a fictional narrative.