A new year, a new lockdown. But that just gives (some of) us more time to read, right? I thought I’d kick off the year by previewing some of my most anticipated reads of 2021, particularly those books hitting the (now virtual) shelves over the next few months.
Memorial by Bryan Washington (Atlantic, January 7) examines a relationship between two young men who, even after four years of seeing each other, still aren’t sure they want to be together. We meet Mike and Benson just as Mike is about to head back to his native homeland of Japan to be with his dying father – a man he hasn’t seen in years and has a pretty poor relationship with. At the same time, Mike’s mother Mitsuko is heading to the US to (she thinks) stay with her son. But it’s left to Benson to do the entertaining in Mike’s absence, something he’s not entirely on board with, having never met Mitsuko before. This kind of sounds like the set up for a sitcom. But, while there are plenty of funny moments – particularly as Mitsuko and Benson learn to live with each other – it’s actually a deeply tender and realistic look at love in the 21st century. Washington completely backs up his debut collection of stories, Lot, with this remarkable novel which is so damn readable, so damn insightful, so damn charming and so damn enjoyable that it’s very easy to ignore its few small flaws and just eat up the pages. An absolute triumph from a writer who is seriously going places.
Another US writer who is building on earlier promise is Jess Walter, whose brilliant The Cold Millions (Viking, February 18) delivers a rip-roaring, virtuoso performance in the grand tradition of great American storytellers from John Steinbeck to Annie Proulx. It is tale of two brothers, both drifting workers holed-up in Spokane in 1909. Rye is just 16 and already bears the scars of his time hopping trains and brutal labour. Gig is older, longer in the tooth, and involved in the labour unions that are whipping up trouble for the rich folks and law enforcement in town. But, rather than an earnest, hardscrabble tale of poverty, what Walter gives us is a kind of tragicomic picaresque with Rye at its centre. Revolving around him are characters real and fictional, all sharply rendered and given their own space to breathe. The narrative has shades of old westerns, social commentary, adventure, political satire, family saga and crime – there really is something for everyone. It’s a hell of a ride.
Lisa Harding brings her experiences as an actress to her stunning second novel, Bright Burning Things (Bloomsbury, March 4). Meet Sonya, who has left a career on the stage behind and returned home to a windswept corner of coastal Ireland. Now a single mum, she suffers from spiralling, suffocating alcoholism. Her whole world revolves around her four-year-old son Tommy, their rescue dog Herbie and her desperate need for the bottle. We follow this family through a few earth-shattering months as Sonya is forced to confront her drinking problem and is threatened with the loss of everything she holds dear. The storytelling is urgent and alive, the characters are wholly convincing, the story is utterly gripping and deeply, deeply moving. It is a truly brilliant portrait of a family and a life in jeopardy and announces Harding as yet another sensational Irish prose stylist.
Looking further ahead, I also have my eye on new books by some of my favourite writers, including Benjamin Myers (Male Tears, Bloomsbury, April 29), Willy Vlautin (The Night Always Comes, Faber & Faber, June 3), Nickolas Butler (Godspeed, Faber & Faber, July 8) and the always amazing Elizabeth Strout (Oh, William!, Penguin, October 21). For younger readers, Sam Copeland returns after his Charlie Changes Into a Chicken series with a new protagonist in Uma and the Answer To Absolutely Everything (Puffin, January 21) and I am very excited by Jonathan Stroud’s latest offering for teens, the adventure The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne (Walker Books, April 1).
Lastly, I can’t let this preview of 2021 books go by without mentioning How We Are Translated (Scribe, February 11), the debut novel of my friend and Mr B’s colleague Jessica Gaitan Johannesson. I was lucky to get the opportunity to read this a few months ago when she gave me a proof copy and I was completely blown away and totally in awe of her. It follows Kristin, a Swedish immigrant, and her Brazilian-born Scottish boyfriend Ciaran, as they negotiate their increasingly absurd everyday lives in Edinburgh and the ‘project’ Kristin has growing inside her that might just change everything. Exploring culture, language, belonging and love, this is a playful, roaring wee beastie of a novel.