Nick Major

Like a mountaineer poring over maps before setting out for the peaks, no dedicated reader can resist thumbing through the new publishers’ catalogues to catch a glimpse of what’s on the horizon. But it doesn’t take long to find yourself stuck in a pulpy quagmire of books about "battling" one ailment or another, or the latest quasi-spiritual puff about detoxifying your mind or cleansing your lifestyle. Then, for the prose-lover, there are the hundreds of pages promoting the newest splurge of blood-spattered crime novels, all called something cliched to do with death. Pity the poor publishers, who have to make all this sound interesting. My suspicion is that the most reliable way of knowing a book’s worth before reading it is to scrutinise the title.

Like the newspaper headline, writing a title is a delicate art. The general rule is: keep it short and snappy. American Dave Eggers has flaunted this in previous novels, such as the unwieldy Your Fathers, Where are They?, And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? His new "true story’" is called The Monk of Mokha (Hamish Hamilton, January). That’s not bad, especially considering it is about Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a San Franciscan man of Yemeni heritage who travels back to his native land to immerse himself in its coffee industry and becomes caught up in the 2015 civil war.

The title of Kirsty Gunn’s new novel might put off people. Nevertheless, Caroline’s Bikini (Faber, June) is written by one of Scotland’s best stylists and her last novel, The Big Music, was a formal triumph. So, expect something original and daring. In Scotland, 2018 will be a fine year for the novel. But not because of anything new, per se. Unless you have been living on a frozen outpost in the Arctic for the last few months, you will have noticed it is the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth. To celebrate, Polygon are publishing sleek new editions of all her novels with new introductions from writers such as Ali Smith and Andrew O’Hagan. I’d recommend The Ballad of Peckham Rye. It has a droll title and an hilarious opening line: “ ‘Get out of here you dirty swine!’”

Spark thought it ‘bad manners to inflict a lot of emotional involvement on the reader – much nicer to make them laugh.’ Pathos, however, seems the central concern of most novels this year. Karl Ove Knausgaard, for instance, is a writer who sobs his way through the world. But Fruits of My Labour (Harvill Secker, September), the last book in his My Struggle series, is sure to bring some people some kind of joy at the end of summer. Rachel Cusk also publishes a final instalment. She’s a writer who doesn’t lack humour – of the dark, ironic kind. Kudos (Faber, May) brings an end to her elegant trilogy about a creative writing teacher.

Many bookmen and women think Cusk a difficult writer, which is another way to say she is a serious one. Other serious novelists with work out this year include Julian Barnes, whose The Only Story (Jonathan Cape, February) is about the "demands" love makes upon a man called Paul. It sounds prosaic; Barnes, however, is not. Peter Carey returns to terra Australis in A Long Way from Home (Faber, January); Philip Hensher’s last short story collection was excellent. He is back this year with a novel called The Friendly Ones (4th Estate). Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight (Jonathan Cape, May) could be the highlight of the summer. It is about a brother and sister who are orphaned in World War II and taken in by a man called The Moth.

Not many people can survive the reading year without a few fictional murders. The wise take their crime novels with an inhalation of laughing gas. If her notorious usage guide Eats, Shoots and Leaves is anything to go by, there won’t be a misplaced comma in Lynne Truss’ new novel A Shot in the Dark (Bloomsbury, June). The first in a series, it concerns a police force wistful for the days of plentiful crime. Their hopes improve when a theatre critic is promptly shot dead whilst watching a new play. As a critic whose judgement is unimpeachable, I can tell you now that Lyne Truss’s new crime novel is an unqualified masterpiece.

For some high-brow death, you’ll probably be in safe hands with Mario Vargas Llosa’s new detective novel. The Scottish poet Alastair Reid said Llosa "always provokes attention, for there are few novelists alive as dedicated as he is to the possibilities of fiction, in all its moods, modes and manners." The Neighbourhood (Faber, May) is set among Fujimori’s politically corrupt regime in Peru during the 1990s. In the same month, Maclehose Press publish translations of two other fine writers in the Latin American tradition. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel The Shape of the Ruins is about two political murders, 30 years apart, that lay the groundwork for the violence of modern day Columbia. Javier Cercas’ The Blind Spot is a series of five lectures on the novel, from Cervantes to the present day.

It is shaping up to be a good year for the essay, new and old. Anthony Burgess thought ‘the title of journalist very noble, but I lay no real claim to it.’ Still, he published reams of book reviews and essays in his lifetime. His previous collections are now out of print. The Ink Trade (Carcanet, May) is a new selection of his reviews and articles between 1963 and 1993. In February, Zadie Smith releases Feel Free (Hamish Hamilton), which promises us essays on Jay-Z, the environment and social media. Across the pond, hopes will be high for Leslie Jamison’s new book. Her previous one, The Empathy Exams, showed she was a young essayist with intellectual weight. Her new book, The Recovery: Intoxication and its Aftermath, might be about the overly-documented relationship between the artist and the spirits, but it should be excellent.

Marilynne Robinson is one of America’s finest novelists of the metaphysical. What Are We Doing Here? (Little, Brown, February) is a collection of essays that promises meditations on de Tocqueville and Emerson. God knows America needs minds like hers to keep its intellectual culture alive. In Scotland, erstwhile Bishop of Edinburgh and practising agnostic, Richard Holloway has spent years sitting at the bedsides of the dying. In Waiting for the Last Bus (Canongate, March), he explores our relationship with the big sleep. Stuart Kelly’s The Minister and The Murderer (Granta, February) unravels the case of James Nelson, who served time in prison for matricide, then sought to be ordained in the Scottish Church. Atheism is often seen as a refutation of religious belief. The contrarian philosopher John Gray explores its complex history in Seven Types of Atheism (Allen Lane, April). That title, by the way, gets zero points for originality.

Doctors are often understood as secular priests. Edinburgh GP and writer Gavin Francis has always been a lucent writer. Shapeshifters (Profile, May) is about how our bodies change, or how we change our bodies, over the course of a lifetime. In the same month another Edinburgh-based doctor, Peter Dorward, publishes The Human Kind: Stories from the Heart of Medicine (Bloomsbury). Using case studies from his own practice, Dorward looks at the subtle and often difficult relationship between doctors and their patients. Perhaps it is their proximity to illness and death, but doctors so often make great writers.

The likelihood of mass death in a nuclear war is purportedly greater than it has been for some time. Daniel Ellsberg is famous as the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers. He also drafted Robert McNamara’s nuclear war plans in the 1960s. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (Bloomsbury, January) is a history of the cold war arms build-up and an assessment of what nuclear war could do to the planet. At the advent of doomsday, Scotland would be the last place in the UK you would want to live. In Facing the Bear: Scotland and the Cold War (Birlinn, August), Trevor Royle explores how Scotland’s maritime defence strategy post-WW2 shaped its politics.

War, sadly, is here to stay. But Mike Thomson’s Syria’s Secret Library (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, May) tells the hope-filled story of how civilians in the besieged city of Darraya started an underground library in the basement of a bombed-out building. As hard rain fell from the sky, people sat around drinking tea and exploring the 14,000 books on the shelves. Two related books worth trying out are journalist Daniel Trilling’s Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe (Picador, May), which follows the stories of refugees trying to reach safe shores, and Syrian Riad Sattouf’s graphic novel The Arab of the Future (John Murray, February). Sattouf is a cartoonist whose work has been published in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. This is the third instalment of his multi-volume memoir about his Syrian family.

A D-Day veteran is the central character in Robin Robertson’s narrative noir poem The Long Take (Picador, February), which delves into the underbelly of a dark post-war America. Elsewhere in poetry, Wendy Cope’s Anecdotal Evidence (Faber, March) will probably be more light-hearted but just as good. She is an expert of short witty verse. Former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion continues mining his family for fresh material in Essex Clay (Faber, May), a sequel to In the Blood. Finally, Sean O’Brien responds to our current political conundrum in his ninth collection. Europa (Picador, April) is ‘not a place we can choose to leave’ but ‘a state of being… where our common dreams, visions and nightmares recur and mutate.’ Hear, hear.