Knickers to Virginia Woolf

Leafing through the publishers' spring catalogues, Suzi Feay found gems for all tastes. Then she got distracted by the hype, the crazy claims and the truly terrible puns
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The Independent Culture

Before we get on to the heavy hitters - and there are some very big names with books out next spring - we have a little administrative business to get out of the way. First it's the announcement of the winner of the annual "Paperback Raita" prize for the worst pun in a book title. Stuart Maconie's memoir Pies and Prejudice: in search of the North (Ebury, published in Feb) did not make the cut - it just isn't punny enough. Not when we have entries of the calibre of I have a Bream by John O'Farrell (Doubleday, Feb), a collection of his newspaper columns; Paws in the Proceedings by Deric Longden (Bantam, May) - Mr Longden apparently writes amusing books about his cats - and Ska'd for Life by Horace Panter (Macmillan, July), a memoir about life on the road with The Specials. Next, edging ever closer to the top spot, is the inspired The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe (Macmillan, March), another memoir, this time about growing up obsessed with playing Dungeons and Dragons.

But the winner is: Mark Collins' A Very British Coop (Macmillan, June), a terrifying journey into the world of pigeon-racing that takes the reader on a white-knuckle ride (I'm sorry, I've been reading far too many blurbs) from Manchester to Blackpool to Las Vegas with a crack team of Northern birdmen known as "The Mafia". Collins also picked up valuable points for the strapline, "Rocky with pigeons". So well done Mark, and well done the wacky punsters at Macmillan!

Talking of straplines, it used to be the fashion to announce that a writer was "As good as" say, Patricia Cornwell, "or your money back!" (Did anyone ever attempt to get a refund?) Macmillan - yes, them again - have gone one step further with the bald "Better than Henning Mankell", which seems a rash claim (Hakan Nesser's The Return, published May, if you want to check out the hype). And surely "the perfect spring read for Maggie O'Farrell fans" would actually be a new Maggie O'Farrell novel, not Olivia Liberty's Falling (Atlantic, Jan)?

Moving on to jacket blurbs, I fear someone at William Heinemann is playing mind games with journo-turned-novelist Marianne Macdonald. Her book The Lotus Eaters (March) concerns a celebrity interviewer (Macdonald's day job) on the trail of a flaky Hollywood actress who is apparently a blend of Sally Bowles, Holly Golightly and Lorelei Lee. (Calm down, now.) It has been backhandedly blurbed "deceptively sophisticated".

On to the prize for the Strangest Author Biog. Writing these mini-lives for book jackets is an art in itself. Gone are the days when you could get away with the classic "divides her time" (between, say, a treehouse in Kenya and a palazzo in Tuscany). The old favourite "lives in Hove with her husband and two cats" is also out of style. An honourable mention, then, to Atlantic for their masterly "Olivier Pauvert is a pharmacist in a small town in southwest France", which is a novel in itself. (Pauvert's debut, Noir, is out in April.) But the prize has to go to Glyn Brown and her forthcoming "rummage through the social history of underwear". The biog lists Brown's literary achievements so far and, we're reassuringly told, "She has worn underwear throughout." Knickers is published in January, courtesy of - Macmillan! You guys are on a roll...

But now on to the serious stuff. In April there's a new novel, Tomorrow, by the famously tight-lipped Graham Swift (Picador). This will be a big event, though his last, The Light of Day, was too oblique for some. Other big names include Jim Crace with The Pesthouse (Picador, March), Jane Smiley, whose Ten Days in the Hills (Faber), a Hollywood novel no less, is published in March, and Dave Eggers, with a novel set during the Sudanese civil war. What is the What comes out in May (Hamish Hamilton). Biggest of all is Norman Mailer, whose new novel The Castle in the Forest explores three generations of the Hitler family, ending with young Adolf (Little, Brown, Feb).

Justin Cartwright's The Song Before it is Sung (Bloomsbury, Feb) marks a departure from his previous novels, but is every bit as compelling. Conrad Senior is obsessed with tracking down a film purporting to show the prolonged, sadistic murder of the German aristocrat Axel von Gottberg, who attempted to assassinate Hitler. Flashbacks take the reader to the heart of the doomed plot, and the search for the film, said to have been made for the personal delectation of the Führer himself, leads Conrad into a profound exploration of guilt, friendship, voyeurism and morality. A cracker.

There's also a new novel from Iain Banks this spring. The Steep Approach to Garbadale (Little, Brown, March) is the story of the Wopuld family, loaded due to an ancestor's invention of the best-selling boardgame Empire! and their canny exploitation of the videogame market. They are all converging on the family castle in Scotland, Garbadale, to vote on a takeover bid. Among their number is the black sheep, Alban, bent on reacquainting himself with the cousin he loved as an adolescent. Banks does grunge better than super-wealth, but this looks promising.

Tracy Chevalier returns in March with Burning Bright (HarperCollins), set in Lambeth in the late 18th century, when a family moves in next door to an eccentric artist and his wife. You can probably guess who that is. Vianne, heroine of Chocolat, is back in Joanne Harris's The Lollipop Shoes (Doubleday, May), and Marina Lewycka follows up the critical and commercial success of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian with Two Caravans (Fig Tree, March), a quirky look at the lives of immigrant strawberry pickers in Kent.

I'm particularly looking forward to When we were Romans by Whitbread prizewinner Matthew Kneale (Picador, June), narrated by a young boy who's dragged by his mother to Rome to escape his father. Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions (Hamish Hamilton, June) shouldn't disappoint - I loved his two previous books, The Impressionist and Transmission. Scarlett Thomas's mindboggling brainy and playful The End of Mister Y (Canongate, June) deserves to make her better known at last. Thomas's scope stretches from theoretical physics to immensely dirty sex scenes, and her novels are always packed with ideas.

Owen Sheers' debut novel should be worth checking out too; with two poetry collections under his belt and a book about his missionary forebears in Zimbabwe (non-fiction but lavishly re-imagined), this young Welsh writer is one to watch. Resistance (Faber, June) is a counterfactual novel set in 1944; the Nazis are in control of Britain, and the story centres on resistance fighters in a Welsh border valley. Another Welsh writer to note is Peter Ho Davies, one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 2003; his two collections of short stories were immensely accomplished. His debut novel, The Welsh Girl, is also set in 1944 (Sceptre, April), this time dealing with the intertwined lives of a German Jewish refugee, a German POW and a 17-year-old girl living in Snowdonia.

Bound to attract attention is The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (Penguin, Jan), an ornate fantasy written by an American unknown, G W Dahlquist. A 750-page behemoth, it concerns an evil conspiracy in mind-control, set in a painstakingly detailed alternative Victorian universe. The author has a bit of a kink for vulnerable maidenhood, judging by the indignities heaped on the intrepid heroine, Miss Temple, who wears little but a shift and open-crotch knickers for much of the narrative. This sprawling saga, originally available in a limited edition of ten separately published installments, is weird, fetishistic and uncategorisable, though it does seem to owe quite a bit to the imagination of Alan Moore.

The memoir boom shows no signs of slowing down this season. The musician Alex James proffers the aptly titled Bit of a Blur in June (Little, Brown), about his time larging it in the archetypal Britpop band. John Lanchester's Family Romance (Faber, April) teases out the life stories of his parents and grandparents; and Stuff (Cape, April) recreates the adolescent years of Martin Rowson, who looks back with a near-photographic recall, as befits an artist, at the house he grew up in in the 1960s and 1970s. As his wild, funny, nasty debut novel Snatches demonstrated, he's as devilishly good a writer as he is a cartoonist.

Another spin on the theme of the Seventies childhood comes from Harry Pearson. In Achtung Schweinehund! A Boy's Own Story of Imaginary Combat (Little, Brown, Jan) he recollects long hours spent playing wargames, manoeuvring tiny soldiers around his bedroom floor and painting Airfix models - homely activities disdained by children in the era of Playstation. A nolstagic read for dads and lads of a certain age.

Paul Arnott puts a positive spin on carb- addiction in the charming-sounding Let Me Eat Cake: a life lived sweetly (Sceptre, Jan), a riposte to William Leith's The Hungry Years. Someone else who knows the stomach and soul must be satisfied before the brain can spark is the wonderful Michèle Roberts. At last, she has written a memoir of London in the 1970s, when she was a fledgling writer fleeing a middle-class upbringing and leaping into radical politics, experimenting with life, sex and literature with equal gusto. Paper Houses sounds unmissable (Virago, June).

In biography, Hitler's favourite film-maker, Leni Riefenstahl, is anatomised by Steven Bach in April (Little, Brown), while Frederick Ashton's biographer, Julie Kavanagh, turns her attention to the incomparable Rudolf Nureyev (Fig Tree, April). I relished Sarah Gristwood's Perdita, the life of the 18th-century beauty Mary Robinson, so her take on Elizabeth & Leicester (Bantam, Feb) should be similarly shrewd and engrossing.

Finally, every year seems to bring at least one new study of Virginia Woolf, but Alison Light's book promises to be something special. Anyone dipping into Woolf's diaries will have sniggered over her struggles with domestic staff. Mrs Woolf and the Servants (Fig Tree, July) sheds light on these fraught and fascinating relationships. Not only did Virginia "wear underwear throughout", someone also had to wash it.

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