Friday, 27 November 2015

The Christmas Books Guide

A well-chosen book is the sort of present that shows you truly ‘get’ the recipient. Whether shopping for a keen traveller, a young relative, an art-lover or a fashionista, our round-up will help you put the perfect tome under the Christmas tree.


THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber, £20; offer price, £16)
In his first novel in 10 years, the award-winning writer surprises his readers again by turning his hand to the genre of fantasy set in Britain’s Dark Ages. As in much of Ishiguro’s work, memory and loss are at the core of this atmospheric tale of an elderly couple who set out on a journey through ogre-infested wastelands in search of their long-lost son.

Their village of underground dwellings, and most of the country, is in the grip of a strange collective amnesia, a way of coping with a violent past: ‘How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly?’ asks one character. While rescuing their son’s memory, quite literally, from the mists of time, they challenge their community’s stance. Bold, original and haunting.

GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee (William Heinemann, £18.99; offer price, £15.99)
It was 2015’s publishing sensation: the only other book ever released by the author of cult classic To Kill A Mockingbird. Tomboy Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, now an independent twentysomething, visits her home town and is forced to question everything she believed about her father, the lodestar of her life. Her world is thrown into a tailspin as she must learn to accept complexity in those around her – even in the crucible of racial tensions that is the American South, not everything is black or white.

If Mockingbird was a coming-of-age story, this is a novel about the growing pains of reaching true maturity and finding one’s own voice. Blending a nuanced understanding of American history with compelling characters, it’s an utterly absorbing read. Is it as good as Mockingbird? The jury is still out.

HONEYDEW by Edith Pearlman (John Murray, £8.99; offer price, £8.54)
These 20 short stories by the new American doyenne of the genre are in a class of their own. Pearlman’s exquisitely precise prose brings her compelling characters to life and conjures up whole intricate, convincing worlds. With a profound understanding of her characters’ psychology, an elegant, distinctive style and painterly visual imagery, her work has drawn comparisons with Chekhov and Alice Munro.

From a deathbed romance between an anaesthetist and his patient, to a man who draws pictures of deformed children as a talisman to keep his offspring safe, these are moving tales.

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton, £20; offer price, £17)
This collection of short stories flirts with the fantastic but demonstrates that King shows no sign of decline. The reader is faced with deaths and spectacular scenes of the uncanny. However, this collection also includes stories that have a gentle quality.

King’s talent for making the normal seem abnormal remains effective, and his ability to move from outright horror to the unsettlingly contemplative remains unchecked.


MURDER FOR CHRISTMAS by Francis Duncan (Vintage Murder Mystery, £8.99; offer price, £8.54)
Who can resist a seasonal whodunnit? The brilliantly named Mordecai Tremain joins a house party in a country retreat one snowy Christmas Eve. But not everything is as merry as it seems: tensions simmer and on the stroke of midnight a dead Santalookalike is found under the tree. Mordecai becomes the unlikely hero, his sleuthing abilities as much a surprise to the guests as to himself. This is a bah-humbug’s ideal read.

THE YELLOW DIAMOND by Andrew Martin (Faber & Faber, £14.99; offer price, £13.49)
Already well known for the Edwardian escapades of Jim Stringer, Martin shifts his attention to crime among the decadence of contemporary London’s Mayfair. DI Blake Reynolds is assigned to a new police unit investigating criminal activities among the elite. Following in the footsteps of DS George Quinn, now in hospital after an attempt on his life, Blake must track down the perpetrator. With characters ranging from forgers to financiers, old wealth to nouveau riche, Martin’s eye for the nuances of this exclusive world makes for a delightful read.

THE LADY FROM ZAGREB by Philip Kerr (Quercus, £18.99; offer price, £15.99)
Kerr is on top form with his latest offering that will keep fans of the Gunther novels happy, while also gaining new supporters. In 1940s Zurich, Goebbels asks detective Bernie Gunther to help with a little problem: actress Dalia Dresner, who has captured the Propaganda Minister’s steely heart, is refusing to act in her next film until she finds out the fate of her missing father. Goebbels feels Bernie is the man for the job – but he doesn’t know the old detective as well as Philip Kerr’s devoted fans.

CRIMES by Alberto Barrera Tyszka (MacLehose Press, £16.99; offer price, £15.29)
Each story in this collection covers a crime, and black humour abounds. The main fascination is not the crimes, but their effect on victims and perpetrators. These are misdeeds of a far-flung variety, set in Barrera Tyszka’s Venezuela. The background of a decaying country that makes a mockery of ideals becomes the true crime.


MRS GUINNESS by Lyndsy Spence (The History Press, £17.99; offer price, £16.19)
Diana, one of the legendary Mitford sisters, is the subject of this nuanced biography. Spence looks at her childhood, gilded youth, marriage to Bryan Guinness and relationship with fascist leader Oswald Mosley and reveals a complex woman: creative but unfulfilled; clever but with blind spots, most obviously about politics.

GEORGE AND MARTHA WASHINGTON by Flora Fraser (Bloomsbury, £25; offer price, £20)
An intimate portrait of America’s original power couple. As a wealthy 26-year-old widow, Martha Dandridge Custis attracted many suitors. She chose the ambitious soldier George Washington. Her fortune paved the way to his career in politics and she proved an ideal politician’s wife. Although not especially passionate (a newlywed Washington described Martha as ‘an agreeable consort for life’), the marriage seems to have been happy. Impeccably researched and entertaining.

MARGOT AT WAR by Anne de Courcy (W&N, £9.99; offer price, £9.49)
Margot Asquith, a member of the Tennant family, had the world at her feet. With her dark looks and acid tongue she might have been the predecessor to Nancy Mitford. As the wife of a prime minister, she was privy to world affairs and had a fierce intelligence. Filled with famous characters and witty prose, this biography moves at a cracking pace.

DIETRICH & RIEFENSTAHL by Karin Wieland (Liveright, £22.99; offer price, £20.69)
Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl both were beautiful, ambitious women who became film icons. Both attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler, who offered financial support. But while Riefenstahl leapt at the chance, the principled Dietrich turned him down. A compelling reassessment of two controversial lives.


NO PICNIC ON MOUNT KENYA by Felice Benuzzi (MacLehose Press, £18.99; offer price, £17.09)
The true story of an Italian POW incarcerated in a British camp in the shadow of Mount Kenya. With no mountaineering skills, he sees the challenge of breaking out of the camp, scaling the mountain (with two accomplices), and then breaking back in as a way of relieving the tedium of imprisonment. Did the trio of Italians make it to the top? You’ll have to read this exciting, honest account to find out.

A SIMPLE STORY: DANCING FOR HIS LIFE by Leila Guerriero (Pushkin Press, £9.99; offer price, £9.49)
A small town in the Argentine pampas is the setting for an all-male folk dance contest. Every year, thousands descend on the unremarkable Laborde for the prestigious Malambo championships. Think Strictly for gauchos. Combining technical precision, years of training and an athlete’s fitness, the Malambo originated with the country’s cowboys, but today’s contestants are predominantly working-class urban youths. A brilliantly observed chronicle of an obscure event.

THE ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, £20; offer price, £16.50)
A 20th anniversary sequel to Notes From A Small Island, the most successful travel book ever. ‘Honorary Brit’ Bryson aptly starts his new book with his British citizenship test, then embarks on another peripatetic amble around his adopted country. Bryson is at his best when striking a melancholy tone, wandering yet another Identikit high street despairing at the loss of community and individual character. A delightful read.

CIRCLING THE SUN by Paula McLain (Virago, £14.99; offer price, £12.99)
Written as fiction and set in colonial Kenya, this is a thrilling account of the life of the British-born aviator Beryl Markham. An unconventional woman, she lives by her own rules and mingles with the Happy Valley set. With the notorious Idina Sackville making a cameo, this will appeal to admirers of naughty aristos.


FIFTEEN DOGS by André Alexis (Serpent’s Tail, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
What would happen if a pack of dogs were given the attribute of human conscience? Would they be any happier than their human counterparts? This thought-provoking tale begins when two drunken gods, Hermes and Apollo, make a bet to answer these questions. In a plot reminiscent of Animal Farm, many of the dogs are uncomfortable with their new ‘human intelligence’. Rifts quickly emerge as others embrace their newly enhanced perceptions. Intensely moving and heartbreaking in turn, Alexis’s novel delves into philosophical and psychological depths. An original idea brillantly executed by the author.

BUSTER: THE DOG WHO SAVED A THOUSAND LIVES by RAF Police Sargent Will Barrow (Virgin Books, £9.99; offer price, £7.59)
Brave springer spaniel Buster has served in five tours of duty, more than any other military dog. This is the deeply moving story of the wonderful partnership between him and his handler, Will Barrow, told by the man himself. There is plenty of heroic action in the heat of the Afghan desert, but also a heart-warming description of the relationship between man and dog, as they work together and share the dangers and discomforts of war and forge a battleformed bond that will always endure.

APOCALYPSE BOW WOW by James Proimos III, illustrated by James Proimos (Bloomsbury Children’s, £6.99; offer price, £6.64)
This charming and unique graphic novel for animal lovers young and old gives a hilarious portrayal of what is, quite literally, a dog’s life. Absolute disaster meets light-hearted fun in its pages that are shot through with an endearing sense of humour.


BOOTCAMP by Robert Muchamore (Hodder Children’s Books, £12.99; offer price, £11.69)
This fast-paced, upbeat novel follows young wannabe rock stars Jay, Summer and Dylan as they head with their bands to glitzy Rock War Manor for a boot camp and talent contest. With engaging characters and a compelling plot, it will prise the least bookish teen away from their iPhone. For a while, anyway.

THE SNOW QUEEN by Hans Christian Andersen (Pushkin Children’s Books, £6.99; offer price, £6.64)
A classic fairytale is brought to a new generation of children in this lovely edition. Best friends Kai and Gerda are separated when Kai is kidnapped by the malevolent (but, let’s face it, irresistibly glamorous) Snow Queen, but Gerda won’t give up on him. A timeless story that inspired Disney’s hit 2013 film, Frozen.

THE SECRETS OF THE WILD WOOD by Tonke Dragt (Pushkin Children’s Books, £16.99; offer price, £15.29)
The Letter From The King was translated into English for the first time last year, to great acclaim. Beautifully illustrated, this sequel sees the return of its hero, Tiuri. Now grown-up and knighted, he must venture into a terrifying forest. A spellbinding tale that will appeal to the young and old.

PEACOCK PIE: A Book Of Rhymes by Walter de la Mare (Faber & Faber, £6.99; offer price, £6.64)
Perfect for introducing children to the pleasures and power of poetry. All are brilliant for reading aloud, with their entrancing rhythms ringing alliterations and clever wordplay. They also touch on deeper themes: a concern for nature, animals and the dangers of sedentary living – more resonant than ever for our screen-bound youngsters.


OSCAR DE LA RENTA: His Legendary World Of Style by André Leon Talley (Skira Rizzoli, £35; offer price, £31.50)
In a glittering career spanning 50 years, De La Renta dressed first ladies, heiresses and film stars.

With a bold use of colour, his work was an alchemy of couture, craftsmanship and an instinctive understanding of women.

His story is told here through 70 iconic dresses and the beautiful women that wore them.

MANOLO BLAHNIK:Fleeting Gestures And Obsessions by Manolo Blahnik (Rizzoli International Publications, £90; offer price, £70)
The name ‘Manolo’ has passed into the language as a byword for swoon-worthy, luxury shoes. Spanish-born Blahnik has become an internationally acclaimed master of shoe design. This is the first comprehensive survey of his work, featuring 250 images from his archives and previously unpublished material, and charting the influences behind his unique vision and style, from Marie-Antoinette to Velazquez. Short of an actual pair of Manolos, this is the best present you can get a fashion-conscious shoe-lover.

YVES SAINT LAURENT + HALSTON: Fashioning The 70s by Patricia Mears and Emma McClendon (Yale University Press, £30; offer price, £27)
A brilliant comparative study of two designers who shaped the mood and silhouette of the 1970s. From YSL’s Le Smoking to the plunging necklines of the Studio 54 era, their designs were game-changers then, and are still influential now. With a vintage 1970s vibe being one of this year’s key fashion trends, many of the stunning pieces featured in this book still look covetable today.


THE POEMS OF TS ELIOT: Collected And Uncollected Poems, Volumes 1 & 2 edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Faber & Faber, £40 each; offer price, £35)
A new critical edition that brings together Eliot’s well-known masterpieces, from The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock to The Wasteland, along with uncollected work from his youth and poems that were only circulated privately, and are collected here for the first time.

Scholarly and with a deep empathy for the work, the editors have corrected errors or omissions introduced over decades of reprinting, the equivalent of restoring a damaged painting. Their in-depth commentary sheds light on the creative process behind each poem, their textual history and the verse itself. An essential addition to any poetry-lover’s library.

WHEN GOD IS A TRAVELLER by Arundhati Subramaniam (Bloodaxe Books, £9.95; offer price, £9.45)
A sense of wonder and striking contrasts pervade the Indian poet’s fourth collection. The sacred meets the everyday, cerebral wordplay delivers fullblooded emotion, and ancient Hindu myths run alongside contemporary urban life. Breathtaking in scope, taking in religious faith, friendships, love affairs and existential themes. Often the work questions poetry itself – but it is always rooted in the physical and the tangible, with fresh visual imagery that really packs a punch. Bold and thoughtprovoking.

KILLOCHRIES by Jim Carruth (Freight Poetry, £8.99; offer price, £8.54)
A sequence of condensed and powerful poems charts the relationship of two very different men on a sheep farm in Scotland: a young poet sent there from town to recover from a breakdown, and a weathered old shepherd. Both wary of each other at first, the pair begins to forge an understanding as they work together on the land through the seasons. A stunning collection that captures an unlikely meeting of minds.

THE RIVER by Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books, £9.95; offer price, £9.45)
Symbols of transience and change, images of rivers weave through this collection exploring themes of loss, creativity and the natural world. This is a strikingly assured debut that blends touching domestic detail with searing insights. A meditative, thought-provoking collection of verse that stays with the reader, offering solace and inspiration long after the last page is turned.


NEW WORDS FOR OLD by Caroline Taggart (Michael O’Mara Books, £9.99; offer price, £9.49)
There was a time when words like ‘selfie’ and ‘workaholic’ didn’t exist, but they weren’t created ex nihilo. This intriguing little book explores the plasticity of the English language, charting how the words we use today have evolved over time – new compounds, shifts in meaning, loans from foreign tongues. Irresistible reading for language-loving types.

TEN COCKTAILS: The Art Of Convivial Drinking by Alice Lascelles (Saltyard Books, £16.99; offer price, £15.29)
’Tis the season to be supping, and cocktails are the best ice-breaker for tense office parties or family gatherings. With a decade’s experience in matters mixological, The Times’s drinks columnist guides us through her favourite tipples, with a splash of history and anecdote.

BOOKWORMS, DOGEARS AND SQUASHY BIG ARMCHAIRS: A Book Lover’s Alphabet by Heather Reyes (Oxygen Books, £8.99; offer price, £8.54)
The committed bibliophile in your life will love this compendium of facts about books – from gentlemen publishers (are there still any left?) to the ‘slightly foxed’, age-spotted pages of antique volumes.

ASK THE PAST: Pertinent Advice From Yesteryear by Elizabeth P Archibald (Square Peg, £14.99; offer price, £13.49)
A compilation of advice for every eventuality, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. From how to look good on a budget to how to ride a horse politely through town, the entries will delight with their sheer quirkiness.

Some of them are still relevant, some hilariously quaint, but none fails to fascinate.



DOWNTON ABBEY – A CELEBRATION: The Official Companion To All Six Series by Jessica Fellowes (Headline, £25; offer price, £22.50)
A lavish feast of behindthe- scenes images, location shots, and exclusive interviews with cast members revisiting memorable moments – a real collector’s item.

THE IN & OUT: A History Of The Naval And Military Club by Tim Newark (Osprey Publishing, £40; offer price, £36)

Lord Palmerston was the only prime minister who refused to move into Downing Street, remaining at home on 94 Piccadilly. How appropriate, then, that the building was to become home to the Naval And Military Club for some 133 years. Nicknamed the In & Out from the signs on the gates to prevent collisions between carriages, the club has given officers a sanctuary from the capital’s temptations since 1862. This superbly illustrated book charts its story from Victorian times to its current premises at St James. Solid and respectable with just a hint of decadence – much like the club itself.

IF THESE JEWELS COULD TALK: The Legend Behind Celebrity Gems by Beth Bernstein (A.C.C Books, £50; offer price, £45)


In Hollywood’s golden age, ostentatious jewellery was part of a star’s outfit on and off screen. This opulent book lists the screen sirens (and the odd royal) under Sapphire Sparklers, Ruby Romantics, Emerald Enchantresses and Diamond Divas. A picture of the star wearing the baubles sits on the page opposite a close-up of the jewels – and the romantic and sometimes competitive stories behind their acquisition. Of course The Duchess of Windsor and Elizabeth Taylor appear under practically every category

Next week, in the second part of our Christmas Book Guide, we bring you the best cookery and romance titles.

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