Incredible survival stories, provocative royal biographies and fiction debuts from massive film stars are among our top autumn book picks. 

How Hard Can It Be?

by Allison Pearson

Kate Reddy was last seen in Allison Pearson’s huge 2003 best-seller I Don’t Know How She Does It juggling two small children and a high-flying job. Now, she’s hurtling towards 50 and not best pleased about it. These days, when a hunky man catches her eye on public transport it’s to offer her a seat. Not only that, but her teenage daughter’s bottom has gone viral and her husband’s new-found belief that mindfulness and Lycra-clad cycling are preferable to earning money means that Kate has to return to work. But will anybody employ a 49-year-old woman?

Once again, Pearson examines the difficulties faced by her generation of women with encyclopaedic thoroughness, great humanity and an impressive refusal to sugar-coat any indignities involved—in this case, often menopause-related. Above all, though, this is a very funny book, with genuine laughs on almost every page.

Male readers—not the target audience, I appreciate—will also be hard-pressed not to enjoy this wildly entertaining and wholly recognisable portrait of modern middle-class life.

Published by Borough Press at £14.99

 

The Wardrobe Mistress

by Patrick McGrath 

Given that he grew up near Broadmoor, it’s perhaps not surprising that many of Patrick McGrath’s novels feature violent insanity. So, eventually, does his new one—but not before he’s given us plenty of other things to chew on.

The book is set in 1947 with post-war Britain feeling “morally magnificent and economically broke”. This moral magnificence, however, isn’t shared by everybody. As The Wardrobe Mistress startlingly reminds us, when British fascists who’d been imprisoned during the war were released, many of them simply resumed their anti-Semitic activities.

For the main character Joan Grice—herself Jewish—this is alarming enough, especially at a time when she’s overwhelmed with grief after the death of her actor husband Charlie. But then she discovers that Charlie had been a fascist too…

McGrath traces Joan’s disorientation and horror with all his customary power—while also serving up a sharply detailed picture of the theatre world, a large cast of memorable characters and a series of overlapping love stories. The result is a rich and highly spiced feast of a novel, even before it reaches its classically gothic McGrath climax.

Published by Hutchinson at £14.99 

 

I Am, I Am, I Am; Seventeen Brushes with Death

by Maggie O’Farrell 

When Maggie O’Farrell was 18, she went walking in the countryside. A man approached her in a way that immediately felt threatening and at one point put the strap of his binoculars around her neck. Although nothing worse happened, O’Farrell felt scared enough to report him to the police, who dismissed her fears as silly. Two weeks later, the same man strangled another young woman to death with his binoculars strap.

This incident forms the first chapter of O’Farrell’s extraordinary new book—and proves a perfect introduction to what follows. For one thing, it’s so vividly written that you find yourself holding your breath while reading. (Not for nothing is O’Farrell a highly successful novelist.) For another, it establishes her main theme here: the fragility, even randomness, of all of our lives.

Seventeen brushes with death might seem a lot for one person and, in truth, some are closer than others. Even so, O’Farrell has had plenty of bona fide near-death moments—including drowning, car accidents and childbirth—and there’s one big reason why. When she was eight, she contracted encephalitis, a brain disease that at first looked as if it would kill her, then that it would leave her unable to walk.

In fact, after a year in a wheelchair, she did recover, but was left with impaired motor skills that have been a danger to her ever since.

She also explains that, “coming so close to death as a child, only to resurface into life, imbued in me for a long time a crazed attitude to risk.”

Published by The Tinder Press at £18.99

 

The Uncommon Type 

by Tom Hanks 

Do massive film stars trying their hand at fiction for the first time set themselves up for a guaranteed success or even more intense scrutiny and judgement than any other debut writer?

For Tom Hanks, this question seems to be of little importance, as his new collection of short stories lives and breathes uncompromising confidence.

The Uncommon Type is a smorgasbord of small, unrelated slices of life spanning different time periods, locations and circumstances, all of which share just one thing in common: a typewriter.

Hanks treats his characters with surprising detachment and emotional equilibrium; though they’re full of life, personality and aching humanity, he, as an author overlooks them with a sort of dispassionate, godlike knowingness, binding them all with a shared sense of mortality but also sincere human to human connection.

A captivating read and an exciting announcement of things to follow!

Published by William Heinemann at 16.99

 

Fools and Mortals

by Bernard Cornwell 

To adapt an old Volkswagen ad: if only everything in life was as reliable as a Bernard Cornwell novel. Thanks to the TV versions, Cornwell is probably best-known for his Sharpe and Last Kingdom series, set in the Napoleonic wars and Anglo-Saxon Wessex respectively. But throughout his long career, he’s proved a pro at whatever period he’s tackled—and in Fools and Mortals, he does again.

The setting this time is Elizabethan London, and our narrator is Shakespeare’s younger brother Richard—who really existed, but has been lost to history. Now he comes vividly alive as a member of his brother’s theatre company, grumbling about William’s bossiness but increasingly awestruck by his talent. As usual, Cornwell conjures up the historical background with complete conviction, throwing in lots of telling details that pull us deep into 16th-century England. But, as usual too, he also provides plenty of thrilling action—including one scene where Shakespeare turns a bit Richard Sharpe himself, giving the baddies from a rival company a ferocious and well-earned beating.

Published by HarperCollins at £20 

 

Everything You Do Is Wrong

by Amanda Coe

Amanda Coe is a highly successful TV writer, most recently with Apple Tree Yard—but her fiction is great as well. The infinite sharpness of the writing here makes for a very funny read, although not necessarily a cheerful one. In fact, the word “poor” could be applied to almost every character in the small Yorkshire town where it’s set. There is, for example, poor Harmony, a plump 15-year-old wrestling with “the impossibility of being normal”. There’s also poor Mel, a middle-aged woman who crams her life with well-meaning activity, not much of which she enjoys. Meanwhile, poor Dan, an idealistic young copper, is disappointed at the dullness of the local police work—and that nowhere in the station is there a whiteboard “with suspect and crime scene photos joined by felt-tipped lines”.

For most of the novel, Coe shifts with unfailing shrewdness between these and other equally touching and recognisable characters. Only in the final chapters does she perhaps lose her way, serving up a blizzard of sensational developments that,
while exciting in themselves, feel like a slightly desperate attempt to disguise her uncertainty about how to end the book.

Published by Fleet at £14.99

 

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret

by Craig Brown

Most Royal biographers, argues Craig Brown (right), are either “fawners” or “psychos”. The fawners pepper their books with words like “radiant” and “gracious”, while praising their subjects to the skies. The psychos take great delight in showing—or inventing—as many flaws as possible.

Happily, Brown himself falls into neither category, despite the fact that he’s tackling the Queen’s famously controversial sister. With the aid of some hair-raising anecdotes, he leaves us in no doubt that Princess Margaret’s reputation for haughtiness was well deserved. On the other hand, he can’t help extending a certain sympathy towards a woman who was never quite sure what she was for—and who, he suggests, was often at least as sneered at as sneering.

Ma’am Darling examines the key events of Margaret’s life with thoughtful scrutiny, including her early relationship with the divorced Peter Townsend that her family pressurised her to renounce, and her grisly marriage to Anthony Armstrong-Jones. On the face of it, the couple were at the epicentre of Sixties jet-set glamour. Behind the scenes, there were infidelities on both sides—and rancorous rows. At one point, Tony wrote her a note headed, “Twenty Four Reasons Why I Hate You”.

Published by Fourth Estate at £16.99 

 

Heather, the Totality

by Matthew Weiner 

Off-hand, I can’t remember a more self-assured debut novel than this. Then again, Matthew Weiner has good reason to be confident—given that he created the global TV hit Mad Men.

Heather, the Totality proceeds by means of individual paragraphs, separated by white space, each of which adds some careful new detail to a short and chilling tale of modern New York. At first, the focus is on the beautiful, sweet-natured Heather Breakstone, together with her wealthy uptown parents. We then cut to a boy called Bobby Klasky, growing up with a drug-addicted mother, and developing into a full-blown psychopath. For a while, the book alternates between the two—until Bobby becomes a builder in the Breakstones’ apartment block, where the 14-year-old Heather soon catches his eye…

What ensues is at times almost unbearably menacing—all the more so because Weiner tells the story in such a cold-eyed, deadpan way. (“Having Bobby did little to alter his Mother’s belief that heroin was the best thing in her life.”) The climax also pulls off the trick of being both completely unexpected and somehow inevitable—at which point the reader can finally breathe out.

Published by Canongate at £14.99

 

Love & Fame

by Susie Boyt

By coincidence, Susie Boyt’s new novel also starts by alternating between two characters whose lives are destined to overlap. One is Eve Swift, recently married and much given to anxiety—even before the death of her beloved actor father. The other is Rebecca Melville, a tabloid journalist who’s never got over the death of her own mother, and whose newspaper has now asked her to dig up some dirt on Eve’s famous old dad.

The plot that follows is easily enough to keep us turning the pages. Yet what makes Love & Fame so memorable are Boyt’s uncomfortably recognisable, if often funny, observations on marriage and family life, with particular reference to the not-always-noble inner thoughts of women. Impressively, too, she’s just as sharp on the love that holds families together as she is on the hurt that their members can inflict on each other. In one of the obituaries that Eve reads obsessively, her father is praised for his ability to convey “the good and the bad of things, deeply felt at the same time”—a verdict that certainly applies to Boyt herself in this terrific book.

Published by Virago at £14.99

 

The Unexpected Truth about Animals; a Menagerie of the Misunderstood

by Lucy Cooke

Why do a lot of birds disappear in the winter? These days, most of us know the answer—but for centuries this was one of the great scientific mysteries. In the 1600s, one Oxford-educated scientist did suggest that they migrated. Unfortunately, he was convinced their destination was the moon. The consensus from the experts, meanwhile, was that they hibernated at the bottom of lakes and rivers. Only in the spring of 1822 did the truth begin to emerge—when a German hunter shot a stork and was astonished to find an African spear sticking through its neck.

Autumnwatch presenter Lucy Cooke’s fascinating book is full of mind-boggling stuff like this about how slowly our knowledge of the natural world has developed. And one reason for the slowness, of course, is how strange the natural world can be. Take the famous ability of bats to navigate in the dark. In the 18th century, one scientist carried out a series of hair-raising experiments that included blinding them, sealing up their nostrils and blocking up their ears. Only the ear-blocking, he discovered, had any effect—but not until the 20th century did we understand why: because bats navigate by echolocation, emitting screams (inaudible to humans) louder than a heavy metal concert.

Cooke also takes much pleasure in throwing in all manner of other amazing facts. Did you know, for instance, that beavers’ anal secretions are used to add vanilla flavour to ice cream? Or that pandas in the wild can mate 40 times in an afternoon? 

Published by Doubleday at £16.99 

 

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