Come the new year, sluggish minds and bloated bodies turn toward the ascetic path of wellbeing, balance and true contentment. For 48 hours or so. Publishers, however, have decided that the first half of 2006 should count as the season when the quest for health and happiness breaks out of its "lifestyle" niche to acquire intellectual weight. Sarah Norgate's Beyond 9 to 5: Your Life in Time (Weidenfeld; February) may supply reasons for not working so frantically. And if, by May, you're still seeking the good life, Darrin McMahon's The Pursuit of Happiness (Allen Lane) or Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness (Harper Press) will help you on the hunt, with Richard Schoch's The Secrets of Happiness (Profile) lending a hand in June. Heather Mills (McCartney)'s Life Balance (Michael Joseph; May) may well sell more than all of these titles combined, while Alain de Botton's The Beauty of Houses (Hamish Hamilton; May) opens a new door to the artistic joys of home.
Sceptics who want some political muscle behind the diagnosis of our discontents will enjoy Avner Offer's account of why more means worse, The Challenge of Affluence (Oxford; January), and the incomparably wise Richard Sennett's scrutiny of The Culture of New Capitalism (Yale; February), while Tim Harford's The Undercover Economist (Little, Brown; March) burrows deep into the scams of consumer society. If you still believe we're hard-wired by evolution for competition and acquisition, then Terence Kealey will be your man (or rather, alpha male), with Sex, Science and Profits (Heinemann; June.)
Yet I suspect that the prophets of social doom will be enjoying a robust spring. Among them, look out for the green guru James Lovelock, with The Revenge of Gaia (Allen Lane; February). Roger Osborne takes a sweeping but sceptical view of Civilization in the West (Cape; February) while Donald Sassoon sees consumption and pleasure as driving forces behind The Culture of the Europeans (Harper Press; May). For John Lloyd, we have now amused ourselves to death, betraying the Enlightenment to build The Republic of Entertainment (Atlantic; June).
Meanwhile, Niall Ferguson will tell the story of how modern nations tore themselves and one another apart in The War of the World 1914-1989 (Allen Lane; April). Time, surely, to consult former Blair adviser Geoff Mulgan's study of Good and Bad Power (Allen Lane; May), or even Boris Johnson's journey to discover How the Romans Ran Europe (Harper Press; March). No, that last title is not a spoof, although Boris's new boss might find slightly more practical tips in William Kuhn's portrait of Benjamin Disraeli, The Politics of Pleasure (Free Press; May).
Back on the home front, the miseries and miracles of family life still furnish a feast of stories to memoirists. The pick of the crop will include Naomi Wolf's The Tree House (Virago; January), John Burnside's A Lie about my Father (Cape; March), Jeremy Harding's Mother Country (Faber; April), and Elizabeth Speller's The Sunlight on the Garden (Granta; April). Autism remains a key theme in books on family matters, notably Kamran Nazeer's Send in the Idiots (Bloomsbury; March) and Michael Blastland's Joe (Profile; January).
Some of the season's most eagerly-awaited memoirs, however, have a political edge. In one way or another, events in the Middle East shape five of them: Moazzam Begg's testimony of his purgatory in Guantánamo, Enemy Combatant (Free Press; March); Kurt Vonnegut's confessions of an American dissident, A Man without a Country (Bloomsbury; April); Rory Stewart's record of his stint as a post-invasion governor in Iraq, The Prince of the Marshes (Picador; April); Linda Grant's report from Israel, The People on the Street (Virago; March); and Frank Gardner of the BBC's view of the career that, in Saudi Arabia, nearly cost him his life: Blood and Sand (Bantam; May).
Edward Said, who wrote so forcefully about the Middle East, leaves behind a posthumous book not on politics but on the creative autumn of writers, artists and composers: Late Style (Bloomsbury; May). In For Lust of Knowing (Allen Lane; January), Robert Irwin explores the battles of ideas prompted by the Western "Orientalism" that Said denounced; and Ephraim Karsh surveys the drive to power on the other side of the divide in Islamic Imperialism (Yale; April). Sceptics who believe that religious faith itself gives rise to hatred will welcome heavyweight scientific backing from Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell (Allen Lane; March), while those who think that the great creeds have a common moral core will like Karen Armstrong's survey of the age of Buddha, Socrates and Confucius: The Great Transformation (Atlantic; March).
In the absence of accessible gods, readers still want heroes. For many, that search will end with Pele's Autobiography (Simon & Schuster; May), leader of a crowded squad of World Cup-tied soccer tomes. Birthday boy Mozart (250 this month) collects a shelf of tributes, with David Cairns's Mozart and his Operas (Allen Lane; January) perhaps the most engaging. Samuel Beckett (born 1906) has been over-biographied, but in March Bloomsbury has an intriguing volume of interviews and memories, Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett. Still on stage, John Heilpern's biography of John Osborne, A Patriot for Us (Chatto; May), will make waves.
Other biographies to relish include Maggie Fergusson's life of the poet George Mackay Brown (John Murray; April) and Alexander Maitland's of the explorer Wilfred Thesiger (Harper Press; February). I am looking forward to books about three heroically awkward customers: Caroline Moorehead's edition of letters by the dauntless Martha Gellhorn (Chatto; June), Lee Server's biography of the explosive Ava Gardner (Bloomsbury; April), and Mac Montandon's volume of interviews with Tom Waits, Dylan's only peer for gravel-voiced transcendence: Innocent When You Dream (Orion; January).
Yet one other book could still be giving satisfaction when almost all the literary highlights of early 2006 languish unread and unmissed. Seamus Heaney has a new collection of poetry, District and Circle, due from Faber in April. That may prove a direct line to enduring bliss. BT
Love and death in a time of literary glut
When you're huge, you can do what you like. Margaret Atwood is so huge that she has come up with a new invention: a special pen that she can use at home to sign books anywhere in the world. Details of the "LongPen" are trumpeted on the press release for her new book, The Tent (Bloomsbury; March) - a collection of "fictional essays" which, by contrast, is extremely short. In the first one, "Life Stories", the narrator battles to reduce his own narrative to a single letter. Faced with the teetering towers of this spring's fiction, a literary journalist can only approve.
Her fellow heavy-hitter Philip Roth has also chosen this year to downsize. In his new novel, Everyman (Cape; May), he swaps the epic sweep of The Plot Against America for a savagely short meditation on envy, disappointment and old age. It's left to Jay McInerney, returning to the characters of Brightness Falls, to tackle the complexities of a post 9/11 world. The Good Life (Bloomsbury; April) takes us back into a seductive world of stylists, SoHo lofts and dinner parties with Salman Rushdie. The prose, however - "the conversation limped along... like a pedestrian with a stunted leg" - is no match for Rushdie's, or Roth's.
It's no match for Peter Carey's, either. His new novel, Theft: A Love Story (Faber; June) returns to the theme of fakes, this time in the art world, in a riotous romp that flits between New South Wales, Manhattan and Tokyo. New South Wales is also the setting for Kate Grenville's first novel in five years. Switching between the slums of 18th-century London and the convict colonies of Western Australia, The Secret River (Canongate; February) is a vivid and moving portrayal of poverty, struggle and the search for peace.
Closer to home, doyenne of historical fiction Sarah Waters has, after three gripping forays into the underbelly of 19th-century London, turned her gaze to London in the Blitz. The Night Watch (Virago; February) is another gripping tale of secrets and sexual adventure. Helen Dunmore, meanwhile, has chosen to return to historical territory, and north-eastern Europe, for her new novel, House of Orphans (Penguin; February). Like her spectacular bestseller, The Siege, it's a haunting exploration, this time set in Tsarist Finland, of the interface between public history and private grief.
History and grief are also the themes of James Lasdun's Seven Lies (Cape; February), a brilliant and darkly funny tale of politics and paranoia set between Communist Berlin and contemporary New York, and Irène Némirovsky's astonishing wartime novel, Suite Française (Chatto; March). Némirovsky wrote her account of Parisians fleeing occupation in 1941 before she herself was arrested and taken to Auschwitz. Found by her daughters 40 years later, it was published in France in 2004, and is set to be one of the biggest literary events of the spring.
So, of course, is any new novel by David Mitchell, one of the most brilliantly inventive writers of this, or any, country. His Black Swan Green (Sceptre; May) is another virtuoso feat, this time set in 1980s Herefordshire and told in the voice of a 13-year-old boy with a stammer. Other highlights on the home front include Jill Dawson's Watch Me Disappear (Sceptre; March), a subtle psychological thriller, and Romesh Gunesekera's The Match (Bloomsbury; March), a charming tale of cross-cultural connection and cricket. They should also include DBC Pierre's Booker follow-up, Ludmila's Broken English (Faber; March),were it not seedily wacky to the point of puerile.
So how, in a market of monster fish, do the minnows get noticed? By writing damn good books, of course. On the debut front, lookout for Gautam Malkani's Londonstani (Fourth Estate; March), a punchy portrayal of the hinterland of Hounslow, Hindi and gangsta rap; Nicola Monaghan's The Killing Jar (Chatto; March), a shocking glimpse of Nottingham gangland; Naomi Alderman's Disobedience (Penguin; March), a fresh, feisty peek at the hidden world of London's Orthodox Jewish community, and Ray Robinson's Electricity (Picador; March), an edgy tale of an epileptic's love and loss. They're a bit longer than a letter - but then they've only just started. CPReuse content