DeLillo leads another pack of heavy-hitting US novelists into our bookshops next year. Most eagerly awaited will be Toni Morrison with Paradise (Chatto) while Russell Banks resurrects the body of abolitionist John Brown in Cloudsplitter (Secker); Jane Smiley also revisits the Civil War in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (Flamingo). Alison Lurie returns with Last Resort (Chatto), John Irving has A Widow for One Year (Bloomsbury), as John Updike tries SF with a novel set in 2020, Toward the End of Time (Hamish Hamilton).
Yet, as Valentine Cunningham argues on page 8, the home side is displaying plenty of grit. Some New Year contenders feature on these pages. Elsewhere, Beryl Bainbridge battles through the Crimean War in Master Georgie (Duckworth) and Lucy Ellmann asks, intriguingly, Man or Mango? (Review). William Boyd releases his long-awaited Armadillo (Hamish Hamilton), Hanif Kureishi seeks Intimacy (Faber) and Martin Amis gathers up his short stories in Heavy Water (Cape). Alan Warner gives a voice to The Sopranos (Cape) and Howard Jacobson proclaims No More Mister Nice Guy (also Cape). Shena Mackay enhances Cape's strength with The Artist's Widow, while Alan Hollinghurst casts The Spell (Chatto).
Joanna Trollope will walk off every shelf with her stepfamily saga, Other People's Children (Bloomsbury). Miranda Seymour turns fact into sinister fiction in The Telling (Murray); Ferdinand Dennis dramatises Caribbean immigration in Duppy Conqueror (Flamingo); and Derek Beaven discloses 1950s English secrets in Acts of Mutiny (Fourth Estate). Rupert Thomson confirms his talents with Soft (Bloomsbury), as does Nicola Barker in Wide Open (Faber). The most-discussed newcomer looks likely to be Naeem Murr with The Boy (Fourth Estate). But brace yourself for a slew of clubby, druggy and footie BritLit novels, some of which will make their publishers blush well before the Millennium Dome opens.
Among the ever-fertile Irish, brilliant playwright Sebastian Barry makes a fictional entrance with The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (Picador) and Carlo Gebler drops into bandit country for How to Murder a Man (Little,Brown). Neither of these gems will sell as well as a first novel from Father Ted's Ardal O'Hanlon, The Talk of the Town (Hodder).
England's greatest German writer, W G Sebald, follows up The Emigrants with his East Anglian odyssey The Rings of Saturn (Harvill). The Latin American big league strike again with Carlos Fuentes (The Crystal Frontier, Bloomsbury) and Mario Vargas Llosa (The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, Faber). Seekers after a bright new Indian star should inspect Faber's Kiran Desai: Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard. Faber also launches its Caribbean series, with Maryse Conde's Bronte-inspired Windward Heights.
On the memoir front, take a Caribbean holiday now to miss the fuss around Julie Burchill's imminent I Knew I Was Right (Heinemann). For more serious struggles, look to Christopher Reeve (Still Me, Century), Lauren Slater's disenchanted take on Prozac, Half-Life (Hamish Hamilton) , John Hoskinson's terrifying account of life Inside (Murray), Stephen Kuusisto's report from the Planet of the Blind (Faber) or Andrea Ashworth's tale of a hellish Manchester home, Once in a House on Fire (Picador). For a less traumatic Mancunian upbringing, try Colin Shindler's perfectly-titled memoir of his Jewish, City-backing childhood, Manchester United Ruined My Life (Headline) - but don't confuse it with My Autobiography by Ruud Gullit (Century).
Among the biographies, D M Thomas finds his ultimate subject in Solzhenitsyn (Little,Brown) as Peter Ackroyd tackles an earlier despot-defying hero, Thomas More (Chatto). Another great scholar-courtier, Francis Bacon, gets a modern life from Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart (Gollancz), as Ian Hamilton reassesses Matthew Arnold in A Gift Imprisoned (Bloomsbury). Yankee Cavalier George Plimpton's Truman Capote (Picador) ought to be a gossipy treat, while Puritan Tom Paulin reinterprets William Hazlitt in The Day-Star of Liberty (Faber).
The travel scene is dominated by V S Naipaul's return to the Islamic world, Beyond Belief (Little,Brown); but you may find more laughs in Michael Bywater's mad flights around Australia, Godzone (Hutchinson). As 2000 looms, we can put millennium jitters in context with Marina Benjamin's Living at the End of the World (Picador), but doomy John Gray predicts disaster for the free market in False Dawn.
What of the cult non-fiction in the offing? Cool heads will score Richard Rudgley's Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances (Little,Brown). For other stimulants, try Isabel Allende's mix of sex'n'grub, Aphrodite, (HarperCollins) or even A Defence of Masochism by Anita Phillips (Faber). Chic Belgian Luc Sante delivers a double whammy with tales of New York Low Life and a memoir, The Factory of Facts (Granta). Smart buffs will praise David Thomson's movie essays, Beneath Mulholland (Little,Brown), and Janet Gleeson aims to do a Longitude with her secret history of porcelain, The Arcanum (Bantam). My tip for the top rises from the depths: Mark Kurlansky's history of "the fish that changed the world", Cod (Cape). And that's a wrap.
Tree Surgery for Beginners by Patrick Gale (Flamingo, pounds 14.99)
He had been feeling bad for making a vulgar pass at someone so vulnerable and open. He need not have bothered. He remembered the way she had coyly insinuated herself between him and the old woman, shyly pecking him on the cheek, coming on like a lovebird. He had never been able to take teasing as a child, as a man he found it intolerable. She was going to be merciless, secure in the knowledge that she was unanswerable.
He angrily punched the button to summon a lift. As he waited, however, he heard Darius's distinctively fruity tones approaching up the stairwell, so he turned aside, hurried back on to the Champs Elysees and dived in at the first open door.
It was a chapel. Panting, Lawrence barely had time to take in the abstract stained glass, electrically lit from behind, the soft organ music piped from below a gaudy flower arrangement, the stripped pine pews, the flickering sanctuary lamp, before a man dressed like a Mormon with a buzz cut like a marine's, had sprung out of the shadows to trap him in a sunny smile and outstretched, seemingly elastic arms. He could have been any age between a sun-wrinkled 40 and a sinisterly apple-cheeked 65.
"Welcome welcome. I'm Father Xavier or just Xavier if you prefer, or indeed Father."
He laughed. It was as though Lawrence had tripped an invisible switch that flung him into motion like some sophisticated puppet. There was a cluster of emblematic badges on his lapel - a crucifix, a star of David, a red ribbon, a pink triangle, a shamrock leaf, a CND symbol and an Islamic moon.
"Have I left anything out?" he asked, following Lawrence's gaze.
"I am the boat's all purpose faith resource and holy person and I tell you the strain can be bewildering sometimes. Come in, come in. What can I do for you?"
"Well actually I was just hiding from somebody."
"Quite understandable. And so many of them to hide from now."
He guffawed. His accent was either Welsh, Irish or American and had perhaps started as one, travelled towards the other and become mired between all three in mid-Atlantic.
"Sit down do. The seats are hard you'll find but the reception's soft and non-judgmental. Ha ha. Only my little joke. Come. Sit."
Warily, coerced by good will, Lawrence sat in the best lit pew. Father Xavier twitched a remote control gadget from his breast pocket and fired it at the flower arrangement. The organ music retreated slightly but the lights, Lawrence was happy to see, dimmed no further.
"Do you have many people seeking you out?" he asked defensively.
The Sandglass by Romesh Gunesekera (Granta, pounds 9.99)
We walked back towards my house, letting the snowflakes settle on us. Prins looked greyer in the head, darker in the face. Going down to my house we seemed to enter a whirlpool where the snow was flying in every direction: up, down, sideways, in spirals. The street lights seemed to draw the flakes to them, like moths to a flame. Prins kept grinning and saying, "Snow," as if he was naming it for the first time. Garden walls, and the leaves of my neighbour's evergreen shrubs in the front garden, were turning fuzzy with this quietly growing whiteness. The sound level of the whole neighbourhood had dropped. When Prins spoke it sounded as if he was enclosed by a net of frozen water.
Flesh Guitar by Geoff Nicholson (Gollancz, pounds 9.99)
Greg Wintergreen woke from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself changed into an electric guitar. He was lying on his back, which was of a lacquered hardness, and when he lifted his headstock a little he became aware of his belly with scratch plate and tremolo arm. His strings, of a pitifully light gauge, vibrated ineffectually.
What's going on? he thought.
This was no dream. His room, a normal human room except perhaps a little too small to allow him to play electric guitar at the volume he would have liked, lay peacefully between the four familiar walls. Above the table, which was littered with guitar tutors, CDs and guitar magazines, hung the picture he had recently cut out of a magazine and stuck to the wall. It showed Bonnie Raitt cradling her trademark blue Stratocaster
Greg's attention shifted to the window. Raindrops hit the glass in a loose four-four beat, and he felt as though he finally knew what the blues were all about. Why don't I go back to sleep and maybe I'll dream about turning into Stevie Ray Vaughan instead, he thought, but somehow he knew this was going to be impossible.
He heard the voices of his mother, father and sister outside the door of his room, all urging him to get up.
"Greg, you'll be late for work. Again," his mother shouted.
He tried to reply and gave a start when he heard the sound of his own voice; unmistakably his, but blended with it was the sound of a humbucking pickup. Fortunately he was plugged in to a small practice amp.
"I'll be right down," he said, musically.
Telling Liddy by Anne Fine (Bantam, pounds 15.99)
Meekly, Bridie allowed Stella to prise the knife she'd chosen from her grip, and give her another with which to make a better job of cutting the smoked salmon things into neat, bite-sized pieces. Through the open door, she could hear George going on about how wonderful Liddy was, and Liddy fizzing with ideas for places to go on a honeymoon with children. She longed for Dennis to get back, not just because now she was desperate for a drink, but also because the more of them in the house who were in on the problem, the better. She'd feel less of a traitor to her starry-eyed sister if everyone in the silent conspiracy, the conspiracy not to be silent any longer, was gathered under the roof feeling just as uneasy, just as much of a louse.
And guilty, too. They should have seen this coming. Did see it coming, in fact. But now that it was here, their weeks of hopeful discretion just made the whole thing worse. It had been wrong and idiotic of them not to tell Liddy at once. And it was going to make things so much more unpleasant telling her now, a full six months after Mrs Moffat first opened her mouth. A full five months since Heather first heard the news in Bainbridge's. A full four months since she herself took Daisy and Edward out, preferring to nose around in their little lives, rather than speak openly to their mother. They were in trouble, every one of them. They'd gambled, and they'd got it wrong.
But the day of the storm is never the day for thatching. (One of their mother's less scrutable utterances.) Bridie was still ruefully reflecting on the significance of timing in family matters when Dennis kicked open the back door and staggered in.
Ark Baby by Liz Jensen (Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99)
Outside, the sky is a jovial cobalt blue, and the trees are punchbags for a wild, irrational wind. While Abbie has been rehearsing, Rose and Blanche have travelled back from Hunchburgh by bullet train, and are now stomping purposefully up Crawpy Street in their elasticated trainers, past the giant Lucozade billboard, up a little alley decorated with dog- shit and old Coke cans, and squeezing their way through a rusty turnstile, past a big FOR SALE sign, into the graveyard of St Nicholas's Church. A cluster of teenagers - the twins recognise Kevin Tobash, Nathan Mulvey, and Tessa Yarble, regular truants from Abbie's home-economics class, among them - sit on a gravestone smoking and kicking at the long grass and nettles. Nearby, an ancient Lord Chief Justice sheep nuzzles about the gravestones like a self-operated Hoover, the mobile nozzle of her lips wiggling to reach the most succulent dandelions: the new ecclesiastical administration, to establish its green credentials, had insisted on not buying a new church lawnmower, but had instead persuaded Ron Harcourt to contract out one of his flock to graze. Rose and Blanche pat the sheep. Then nod at the kids, remembering their own tendency to come here when skiving off school. History repeats itself, they think, as they pick their way past the crumbling gravestones.
"Look," said Rose, pointing to a grave from which sprouted a mass of indecently sprawling vegetation with yellow flowers.
"Eugh," said Blanche. "Creepy."
"It's a gourd plant." A long-haired, ineffectual-looking man steps out from behind a gravestone. "I looked it up. It's famous for its adaptability. Repeats itself every five generations. Green one year, yellow the next, then orange, then mauve, then back to green. Amazing, eh? The Lord moves in a mysterious way. I'm Josh - remember?"
"Hi, Josh," said the girls.
They did remember. He helped organise things like the Thistle Festival. They'd seen him at the Yard of Ale Contest, and he and Dad had taken turns to MC the Karaoke nights at the community centre. And wasn't he the bloke who did that embarrassing cabaret thing for the Birdspotters' Association? Yes: the Vicar.
The House Gun by Nadine Gordimer (Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99)
Stop the clocks, lock the doors, but every summer night there is repeated the afterglow they used to come out to enjoy as it raised the sky with light from the bonfire of the day. Another day; awaiting. They still come out. Awaiting trial. They pass the newspaper between them as people do who are not on speaking terms but recognise one another's presence. They are here, there is no remedy. When there were the usual disappointments and setbacks in their lives - small, small, dwindled to the trivial - they would come home and burrow into each other in bed. He drinks his nightly alcohol ration while the birds (Black-faced Weavers, common to the region) make conversation like foreigners in a bar.Reuse content