Books to look forward to this year

From Shubnum Khan to RuPaul, here are 15 picks to look out for

14 January 2024 - 12:49
Present Tense by Natalie Conyer.
Image: Supplied Present Tense by Natalie Conyer.

The Life Impossible by Matt Haig (Canongate)

Either you think Haig’s novels are trite, contrived and clumsy, or imaginative, genre-bending and effortlessly cool. His best-selling book, The Midnight Library, which came out a few years ago, had exactly this Marmite factor, and The Life Impossible could too. His latest offering focuses on widow and retired maths teacher Grace Winters, whose life follows a set routine involving watching birds in her garden and doing crossword puzzles. But her predictable existence is interrupted when her long-lost friend dies in mysterious circumstances in Ibiza.

Who Looks Inside by Anna Stroud (Karavan Press)

Stroud has been one of our favourite reviewers here at the Sunday Times, so we are pleased to announce that her debut novel has been published by Karina M Szczurek’s independent publishing house. Who Looks Inside explores themes of childhood trauma in a working-class Afrikaans family. The news of her mother’s death pulls Hannah back from South Korea to her childhood home in the Karoo, where she discovers she never escaped her abusive father and passive mother. Her world unravels as she struggles to separate the life she has built for herself from the one she has survived.

Present Tense by Natalie Conyer (Penguin)

First published in Australia, this action-packed novel won the 2020 Ned Kelly Award for debut crime fiction. Present Tense features hard-boiled veteran cop Schalk Lourens, who is trying to put the past behind him. But when his old boss, retired police chief Piet Pieterse, is murdered, Schalk finds history has a way of permeating everything. Meanwhile, it’s also an election year. People are pinning their hopes on charismatic ANC candidate Gideon Radebe, but he faces opposition, and in this volatile country unrest is never far from the surface. Schalk must walk a fine line between the new regime and the old, the personal and the professional, and justice and revenge. Conyer was born and raised in Cape Town, but now lives in Sydney. Present Tense is her first novel, but the good news is that it is part of a series, so there are more to come!

Come and Get It is Kiley Reid's second novel.
Image: Supplied Come and Get It is Kiley Reid's second novel.

Come and Get It by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury)

Reid’s debut Such a Fun Age was critically acclaimed as a funny, searing and refreshing novel about racism and privilege. This time she focuses on another thought-provoking coming-of-age tale, but the narrative is centred on a group of women living in and around a college campus. Blurb: “Millie Cousins is desperate to graduate, get a job, and buy a house. So when Agatha Paul, a visiting professor and writer, offers her a unique opportunity, she jumps at the chance. But soon Millie's life-changing opportunity could be in jeopardy.”

The Comrade’s Wife by Barbara Boswell (Jacana)

A gripping narrative about the lies and betrayals of party politics as the personal and the political come crashing together in contemporary South Africa. The Comrade’s Wife follows a turbulent love affair between a rising politician and an academic, seen from the perspective of the academic. The novel explores themes of power, gender, sex and greed as the couple navigate their way through an ever-shifting society in which things are never quite as they appear on the surface. Boswell’s singular eye and voice bring South Africa a love story that delves into the world of party politics, marriage, betrayal, sexual violence, and the ways in which institutions meant to serve ordinary citizens often end up betraying them. 

The Fury by Alex Michaelides (Michael Joseph)

From the author of The Silent Patient comes another psychological thriller that will have you looking at your friends with suspicion — if you have not done so already! This is a classic locked-room mystery that follows a former movie star trapped on a private Greek island with her best friends and a murderer. Bingeable.

Amma ’n Memoir: Charmaine Africa (Tafelberg) 

Amma is Africa’s first book. In this memoir, she writes expressively in Kaaps about her childhood in Bishop Lavis. Her story, with its pockets of surprising humour, centres on the daily life of her family from the 1960s onwards: her mother, Amma, who struggles to hold on to her job and keep her family together; her alcoholic father; her sisters, both of whom are struggling to save their marriages; her brothers, who seem to be following in their father’s footsteps; and she herself, who is a young woman trying to fight an inescapable fate. Amma gives voice to the struggle for survival on the Cape Flats, and the book is an stark look at grinding poverty. The narration is unadorned, heartbreaking and masterful.

The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil by Shubnum Khan.
Image: Supplied The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil by Shubnum Khan.

The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil by Shubnum Khan (Pan Macmillan)

After tackling a part-memoir, part-travelogue in How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo: And Other Strange and Wonderful Stories, Khan once again returns to fiction. Her new novel takes place in a crumbling mansion in Durban. Blurb: “Sana and Meena will never meet. The two women share little beyond Akbar Manzil, the sprawling mansion they call home. When Meena fell in love with the owner of the house, it was the grandest residence. Eight decades later, when Sana and her father move to the house, the latest of Akbar Manzil's long list of tenants, it is in near-ruins. Full of questions about her new home, Sana is drawn to the deserted east wing, home to a clutter of broken and abandoned objects — and to the locked door at its end, unopened for decades. Soon Sana begins to discover the tangled, troubling history of the house.” 

God’s Pocket by Sven Axelrad (Umuzi)

The much-anticipated sequel to his debut Buried Treasure, God's Pocket is a coming-of-age story with a twist. On the outskirts of Vivo, there is a cabin at the bottom of an abandoned quarry that is barely visible from the roadside. With the help of his four best friends, Filo moves into this secluded dwelling to write his first novel. He’s convinced that doing so will change his life and save him from a soul-destroying career as an accountant. The quarry, however, might not be as abandoned as it seems ... What or who will Filo discover there? And what price will he pay for his art?

The Work of Repair by Thomas Cousins.
Image: Supplied The Work of Repair by Thomas Cousins.

The Work of Repair: Capacity after Colonialism in the Timber Plantations of SA by Thomas Cousins

Published by Fordham University Press this year, this book is now published in South Africa as the first publication of Pulani Press, an imprint of Modjaji Books. The book is worth getting for the cover alone, which features artwork by William Kentridge. The Work of Repair is an ethnographic examination of the intimate relationships between labourers in the timber plantations of post-apartheid South Africa in the wake of the HIV crisis. The book also addresses contentious issues concerning the politics of nutrition. Cousins is an associate professor in social anthropology at the University of Oxford and a research fellow at Stellenbosch University. 

Home Scar by SE Bhamjee (Modjaji Books)

This is another debut to watch. Meet Asma, the only child of the Patels. Growing up in an Indian township in the 1960s, hers is a near-idyllic childhood. At 12, she's the class superstar, her future all mapped out, with her father announcing to everyone that she will be a doctor. But at 17 she falls in love with Ghaarith — a leather-jacket-wearing, stove-pipe-toting boy from the wrong side of the colour divide. When 1976 arrives and the country goes up in flames, Asma is caught between the fires of resistance and her duties as the daughter of an Indian household. Bhamjee is a full-time chef and restaurateur. 

In Silence My Heart Speaks by Thobeka Yose (Karavan Press)

A searing, brave and compassionate memoir chronicling the author’s emotional journey from a traumatic childhood and the early loss of her beloved husband to life as a single parent who must accompany her child on a difficult process of self-discovery. Yose confronts taboos surrounding mental health, abuse, betrayal and sexual identity with a fearless honesty, kindness and understanding that is deeply inspiring.

The House of Hidden Meanings by RuPaul.
Image: Supplied The House of Hidden Meanings by RuPaul.

The House of Hidden Meanings by RuPaul (HarperCollins)

International drag superstar and pop culture icon RuPaul pens this brutally honest, poignant and intimate memoir of growing up black, poor and queer in a broken home. He recounts discovering the power of performance, finding his chosen family, and attaining self-acceptance.

Power and Faith: How Evangelical Churches are Quietly Shaping our Democracy by Pontsho Pilane (Tafelberg)

Journalist Pontsho Pilane's experiences in a powerful evangelical church changed the trajectory of her life and led her to embark on a quest to deconstruct this charismatic form of Christianity. She strives to be a responsible believer who can contribute to a more just society. In this memoir and analysis, Pilane addresses he dangers of unquestioning belief in the theology preached by Pentecostal churches and considers how it affects our everyday lives.

The Child by Alistair Mackay (Kwela)

Mackay impressed with his debut novel It Doesn't Have to Be This Way. His new offering is is the story of a man who returns with his husband to South Africa after having spent a few years abroad and dreams of adopting a child. The novel's title refers to Greg's ideal child — the black baby he and his husband would like to adopt to fulfil a personal desire for a family and honour a social obligation he feels as a white South African to give a baby a good life.

Crooked Seeds by Karen Jennings (Karavan Press)

A woman in post-apartheid South Africa confronts her family’s troubling past in this taut and daring novel about national trauma and collective guilt. From the Booker Prize-longlisted author of An Island, this is an unforgettable story of fractured families, the ways we become trapped in prisons of our own making, and how we can begin to break free from the restraints we impose upon ourselves.