Preface to 1997

Boyd Tonkin looks ahead to the new year's lead reads

Alan Coren once called a volume of his collected pieces Golfing for Cats. He reckoned that, since both key words famously appealed to bookshop buyers, combining them would double his sales potential. On that principle, a book that weds New Age mysticism to a sporting superstar ought to walk off the shelves. Davis Miller's The Tao of Muhammad Ali (Vintage, March) certainly wins the prize for Smartest Title of Early 1997. It joins a posse of forthcoming biographies that promise to reassess our heroes and villains. Opinions will differ on which is which, with, eg, Michael Heseltine (by Michael Crick; Hamish Hamilton, February); Che Guevara (by John Lee Anderson; Bantam, April); or even Saint Paul (by AN Wilson; Sinclair-Stevenson, March). Fresh looks at genuine romantic heroes include Phyllis Grosskurth's life of Byron (Hodder, Feb) and two new perspectives on JMW Turner, by Anthony Bailey (Sinclair-Stevenson, May) and James Hamilton (Hodder, June).

It also looks like a strong spring for creative mavericks. Charles Nicholl follows Rimbaud into Africa (Cape, May); David Hadju goes in search of Billy Strayhorn, the genius behind Duke Ellington (Granta, March) while Tom Hiney revisits Raymond Chandler's mean streets (Chatto, June) and Victor Bockris catches up with post-punk priestess Patti Smith (Fourth Estate, June).

Elsewhere, the British retreat from Hong Kong and the 50th anniversary of Indian freedom prompt a battalion of post-imperial reappraisals. Hong Kong lends a setting to Paul Theroux's new novel (Kowloon Tong; Hamish Hamilton, May), while Tim Heald reports on its dying colonial days (Beating Retreat; Sinclair-Stevenson, May). Indian excursions include new lives of Gandhi by Yogesh Chadha (Century, March) and Nehru by Nigel Hamilton (Century, April). Sunil Khilnani analyses The Idea of India (Hamish Hamilton, June) and Patrick French traces the road to partition (Liberty or Death; HarperCollins, June). For more flippant sidelights on empire, join Harry Ritchie's tour around The Last Pink Bits (Hodder, May); or, for a bold account of why imperial powers succeed at all, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (Cape, April).

Back home, election year sees some original takes on a fast-changing society. Stephen Pollard and Andrew Adonis explore Britain's social divisions in A Class Act (Hamish Hamilton, June), while Vernon Bogdanor investigates Power and the People (Gollancz, April). Blake Morrison considers our family troubles in As If (Granta, March); and Michael Bracewell evokes "pop life in Albion" (England is Mine; HarperCollins, March). Blairite guru Geoff Mulgan offers his big picture in Connexity (Chatto, Feb) as Charles Handy reconciles work with life in The Hungry Spirit (Hutchinson, May). Standing out among many titles that look into cyberspace are Sadie Plant's Zeroes and Ones (Fourth Estate, March) and John Seabrook's Deeper (Faber, March). The hi-tech global market takes a hammering from John Gray (False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism; Granta, June) and former bishop David Jenkins (Can we Think Again?; Sinclair-Stevenson, May). Still on the radical side, new-wave feminism can boast Joan Smith's Different for Girls (Chatto, June) and Margaret Anne Doody's epic of revisionist LitCrit, The True Story of the Novel (HarperCollins, Jan).

Among the spring crop of fiction, expect great things from Jonathan Coe's The House of Sleep (Viking, May) and Edmund White's The Farewell Symphony (Chatto, May). Controversy will reliably break out around Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries (Granta, Jan); Martin Amis's stories in Straight Fiction (Flamingo, May) and Will Self's Great Apes (Bloomsbury, April). Among novelists from beyond these shores, Saul Bellow returns with The Actual (Viking, June), Pasolini's rediscovered Petrolio will fuel debate (Secker, May); and Arundhati Roy looks set to become India's Next Big Thing with The God of Small Things (Flamingo, June). Finally, you may recall that Gilbert Adair revealed here that he had given up on novels in despair. Well, I'm pleased to announce that - in a fit of absent-mindedness - he appears to have written one: The Key to the Tower (Heinemann, June). And jolly good it sounds as well. "Do I contradict myself?" as Walt Whitman wrote. "Very well then I contradict myself".

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