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Why it's best to spend 2012 between the covers

From Australia to Antarctica, and from historical fiction to up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-nation pronouncements, Katy Guest looks forward to the titles that we'll most enjoy losing ourselves in during the coming year

A new prize awaits the best of the fiction to be published in 2012: The Literature Prize was recently founded by a group of authors, literary journalists and publishing types whose aim is to "establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence" – a role that it claims is no longer "fulfilled by the Booker".

Frontrunners are already making themselves known. William Boyd is first off the blocks with Waiting for Sunrise (Bloomsbury, £18.99), to be published in February. Set in Vienna in 1913 and 1914, it has love, war, spies, Freud and "a secret code that is threatening Britain's safety". Fresh from the success of Channel 4's adaptation of his Any Human Heart, this should be a good year for Boyd.

Already tipped for success is The Street Sweeper, by the Betty Trask prizewinner Elliot Perlman (Faber, £14.99), to be published on 16 February and spanning more than 50 years, from New York to Melbourne, Warsaw and Auschwitz. This is followed in March by No Time Like the Present by Nadine Gordimer (Bloomsbury, £18.99), and John Lanchester's Capital (Faber, £17.99), billed as our first post-crash state-of-the-nation novel. The latter begins with an identical message dropping through every letterbox in an ordinary street, reading ominously: "We Want What You Have". In the same month, our colleague DJ Taylor publishes Secondhand Daylight (Corsair, £14.99), the sequel to his acclaimed 2010 novel At the Chime of a City Clock.

Peter Carey attempts his Booker hat-trick in April with The Chemistry of Tears (Faber, £17.99), set in 19th-century Germany and modern London. Philip Hensher's Scenes From Early Life (Fourth Estate, £18.99) is billed as a novel about the violent creation of independent Bangladesh in 1971, "told in the form of a memoir" and "narrated" by Zaved Mahmood, Hensher's husband, who was born in Dhaka in late 1970. And in May, Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is a promising tale of Victorian Edinburgh that will appeal to fans of her award-winning The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and The Queen of Whale Cay.

Traditionally, those with an eye on the Booker Prize tend to publish just before the 30 September cut-off point. This year will see Lawrence Norfolk and Howard Jacobson do exactly that. Both have novels due for publication by Bloomsbury in September: John Saturnall's Feast by Norfolk and Zoo Time by the 2010 Man Booker prizewinner, Howard Jacobson. The latter should be a real treat for Jacobson's fans: it is set in doomed literary London and stars a downtrodden protagonist with a highly strung, red-haired wife and a deeply troubling mother-in-law.... Attica Locke's The Cutting Season (Serpent's Tail, £12.99), being American, is not a Booker contender, but could easily follow her last novel, Black Water Rising, onto several prize shortlists.

Several debuts for 2012 are already causing excitement. Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child (Headline Review, £14.99, 16 February) is set in 1920s Alaska but inspired by the fairytale The Snow Child, which Ivey first found while stacking shelves in the children's section of an Alaskan bookshop.It will be a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime in April. The former journalist Lloyd Shepherd has researched the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders in Wapping for his The English Monster (£12.99), a visceral debut which Simon & Schuster compares to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell. The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood (Simon & Schuster, £12.99, 2 February) is a more modern fairytale: following a nursing home assistant in Cambridge it is "a powerful read that explores the conflicts that arise between logic, religion and blind faith", according to The Bookseller.

Speaking of logic, religion and blind faith, two early 2012 titles enter contemporary pub debates from more enlightened perspectives. Heaven on Earth by Sadakat Kadri (Bodley Head, £18.99, 19 January) is a thoughtful "journey through Sharia Law", which takes an overdue look at "one of the most disputed but least understood controversies of modern times", while Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) is described as "a non-believer's guide to the uses of religion".

But among non-fiction titles, 2012 looks set to be a battle between Dickens and the Titanic, with the bicentenary of the birth of the former and the centenary of the demise of the latter dominating schedules. Among those that stand out are Dickens's Victorian London, by Alex Werner and Tony Williams (Ebury Press, £25, January) and Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew by Richard Davenport-Hines (HarperPress, £20, January). Bloomsbury cites several Antarctica-related anniversaries and events, though, to tout Gabrielle Walker's Antarctica (£20), a winning mix of science, history and splendid writing by a five-times visitor to the continent. It is also plugging an as yet untitled non-fiction title by the Operation Mincemeat and Agent Zigzag author Ben Macintyre. This intriguing offering will be published in March.

Finally, and to prove that these recommendations are entirely subjective, five random titles that take our fancy here on the books desk. After Such Kindness by Gaynor Arnold (inset top right; Tindal Street Press, £12.99 July) follows her Booker-listed Girl in a Blue Dress, which was a novel based on the Dickens marriage; this one is about the relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell. The Trials and Tribulations of Les Dawson by Louis Barfe (Atlantic, £19.99, February) is an antidote to modern Saturday night TV scheduling by the underrated author of Turned Out Nice Again: The Story of British Light Entertainment. Tim Lott's Under the Same Stars (Simon & Schuster, £16.99, March) is set in Texas; Various Pets Alive and Dead, by Marina Lewycka (Fig Tree, £20, March) has hamsters, cockroaches, poodles and multiplying rabbits; and This Is Life by Dan Rhodes (left; Canongate, £12.99, March) is "a missing baby mystery and an enchanted Parisian adventure", and bound to be every bit as weird and inexplicably beautiful as all Rhodes's other novels.

Happy 2012.