CHARLIE CONNELLY recommends a handful of books to kick off your Christmas shopping.
I know the C word is a touchy subject at the moment and it still feels a wee bit early to mention it somehow even though we’re in what’s undeniably December. Given that our winter hootenanny is likely to be reduced considerably in scope this year, however, not to mention the ubiquitous ‘year in review’ TV shows becoming largely redundant in what just feels like the longest March ever, now might be a good time to think about books for Christmas. We might all have a bit more time to fill than normal and what better way to achieve that than with a new book, freshly unwrapped on Christmas Day.
Books always make great Christmas presents. Can there be a more thoughtful gift than giving someone the opportunity to spend hours alone with something that gives them a really good time? Granted there are probably other items and devices that also achieve this but they fall slightly outside our remit. Also, weird Christmas presents.
December is always a busy time for the book world but this year is exceptional. As I write it seems as though bookshops will be allowed to open again after the latest lockdown and a good job too: the last quarter of 2020 has seen the largest concentration of new titles published in years, comprising those originally slated for publication around now and those held back from earlier in the year due to the pandemic.
The sheer number of new books out in time for Christmas is staggering – it’s not even like we’ve read all the old ones yet – and while the variety of titles piled on shop tables and shoehorning themselves into your online recommendations means plenty of choice, it also presents a daunting prospect for the Christmas gift-giver.
There are some obvious stocking stretchers. Barack Obama’s doorstep of a memoir A Promised Land (Viking, £35) will be nudging against the lower branches of a fair few Christmas trees this year, not least those belonging to a coven of world leaders who’ll be frantically leafing through the index for their own names (Angela Merkel will be pretty pleased with her copy, Nicolas Sarkozy possibly less so). Last month A Promised Land sold 147,000 copies in the UK and Ireland during its first week including 80,000 print copies and nearly 60,000 audiobooks. There’s currently much speculation in publishing circles regarding a possible Donald Trump memoir, but now that even renowned responsibility-vacuum Twitter is pointing out that he tweets a relentless stream of utter cobblers this could lead to a scramble among more fiction imprints than non-fiction.
The popular fiction hit of recent weeks has been Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club (Viking, £14.99), the fastest-selling crime debut since records began. The story of a quartet of amateur sleuths in a retirement home trying to solve a murder on their doorstep, The Thursday Murder Club is the first of at least four thrillers coming from the Pointless supremo’s pen and one that will be on a fair few Christmas lists this year.
Nigella Lawson’s Cook, Eat, Repeat: Ingredients, Recipes and Stories (Chatto & Windus, £26) will be another popular Christmas gift, even if using the word ‘repeat’ in the title of a cookery book is a very brave move indeed.
The most commercial Europe-related title this Christmas is probably A Year at the Chateau by Dick and Angel Strawbridge (Seven Dials, £20), a memoir of the terrifyingly organised Channel 4 couple’s first 12 months in their palatial French abode. In the light of Covid-19 and Brexit, reading it might even be the closest any of us get to France for a while.
Douglas Stuart, meanwhile, can expect a double-bump Christmas this year with the Booker Prize money for his Shuggie Bain (Picador, £14.99) foreshadowing massive sales in the run up to the holidays: the announcement of his win last month dropped the flag on another 150,000 copies rolling off the presses to meet the anticipated demand.
These are all titles that will dominate the charts this Christmas without any help from you or me. But what about beyond the headline acts, the books that deserve a seasonal boost as a.) they’re just excellent books that will be appreciated by any reader and b.) it’s a cut-throat coverage world out there, this Christmas more than any before?
Let’s start with some titles that scooped awards without the media clout of the Booker. This year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, for example, was won by Maggie O’Farrell for Hamnet (Tinder Press, £20), a beautifully-crafted tale based on the imagined life of William Shakespeare’s young son. O’Farrell is an extraordinary writer, and if you choose to press Hamnet on a friend or relative this winter it is definitely a book that will stay with them long into next year.
A word too for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s tale of love, class, race and female empowerment during the Biafran conflict Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Women’s Prize in 2007 and this year was chosen as the ‘winner of winners’ to mark the award’s 25th anniversary.
The biggest award for non-fiction is the Baillie-Gifford Prize, formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize, and this year’s winner, Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (Fourth Estate, £20), will be a welcome gift for many this Christmas. The success of his idiosyncratic biography of Princess Margaret Ma’am Darling proved there are few more versatile and original writers than Brown, certainly in non-fiction, and he succeeds in making a story as familiar as that of the Fab Four feel fresh and exciting. As well as the band itself, Brown incorporates the figures drawn into their orbit from Yoko Ono to John Riley, the psychedelic dentist.
One award that has increased its cachet in recent years due to the surge in the quality and popularity of its genre is the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, and this year’s winner was the remarkable Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty (Little Toller Books, £16.99). Just 15 years old when he finished writing the book, McAnulty’s diary covers a year from spring equinox to spring equinox in which his family moved across Northern Ireland and away from his beloved local forest but he still found solace in the natural world away from a new school and new routines.
There will be much more to come from McAnulty, but this gorgeous book will certainly be a popular gift this Christmas. It’s also a well-deserved triumph for the small independent publisher Little Toller, who started out on a Dorset kitchen table and last month opened their own shop in the west Dorset town of Beaminster in the middle of the pandemic. They showed unshakable faith in McAnulty, who is autistic, all through the publishing process, giving him a level of support and attention he might not have received at larger publishing houses.
Right, to Europe. As we count down the days until you-know-what, the Europhiles on your gift list will I’m sure appreciate even more the opportunity to escape to the continent in their imaginations at least. Three novels in translation published this autumn by MacLehose Press catch my eye. Two of them are certainly short on laughs, but each is a valuable reminder of the sheer variety of contemporary European fiction available in English translation right now just when we need it most.
Philippe Claudel is one of the most versatile writers in France. As a screenwriter and director he’s won a BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film and there’s a cinematic quality to his 14th novel, Dog Island, translated by Euan Cameron (MacLehose Press, £16.99). It’s a timely and elegant examination of the migrant situation in the Mediterranean from the point of view of a remote, volcanic island that depends on tourism for its survival and lives in fear of negative publicity as a result.
In Freetown (MacLehose Press, £10), Dutch writer Otto de Kat also touches on the migrant crisis as the background to a rekindled love story between Maria and Vincent, who have, you know, history. Maria becomes concerned by the absence of Ishmael, a refugee from Sierra Leone who has delivered her newspaper for seven years and became like a son to her, and seeks Vincent’s help. In Laura Watkinson’s excellent translation this is a story that expands way beyond its 140 pages.
The Ukraine conflict has been rather bumped from the headlines in the last year or so but in Andrey Kurkov’s new novel Grey Bees (MacLehose Press, £14.99), translated by Boris Dralyuk, we’re taken right to its heart, the grey zone, the shifting no-man’s land between the Russian and Ukrainian forces.
Sergey Sergeyich and Pashka, neighbours and old schoolmates with a bond that even their mutual antipathy can’t break, are the only residents left in the three-street village of Little Starhorodivka at the heart of the fighting. Sergey remains there in part because of his beloved bees, until he realises that for their sake he has to leave the area and sets off, meeting combatants, sympathisers and victims of both sides of the conflict in a warm and surprisingly funny book from Ukraine’s greatest living novelist.
Recently the Financial Times ran a feature on the 10 best history books published this year which somehow managed to overlook every book written by a woman. At least three titles that should be in any such selection concern our continent and would certainly justify a place in a Europhilic stocking this Christmas.
Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History (Hurst & Co, £20) is a brilliant telling of a story that’s been too long overlooked, beginning with the Egyptian who became leader of the Theban Legion of the Roman army and taking the story right up to the present day. It’s an absolutely eye-opening read, packed with jaw-dropping stories.
Catherine Fletcher’s The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance (Vintage, £25) peers behind the refined, cultural sheen of the Renaissance to explore its darker side and plenty of other hitherto unexplored aspects, reminding us that, for example, the woman portrayed in the Mona Lisa was married to a slave trader.
As pacy as a thriller, this is a book that torpedoes the traditional view of the Renaissance.
Judith Herrin’s Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe (Allen Lane, £30) meanwhile is a sumptuously produced and beautifully written account of how the city on the Po was the beleaguered last capital of the Roman Empire but managed to grow into the centre of Byzantine power in Italy and the key pivot between East and West at the dawn of the early modern period. This is a fascinating read and a fabulous book, from the gold sheen of its cover to the vibrant colours of the magnificent illustrations.
Perhaps the best book for a Europhile this Christmas is Richard Bassett’s Last Days in Old Europe: Trieste ’79, Vienna ’85. Prague ’89 (Penguin, £9.99). Far more than the memoirs of a wistful foreign correspondent – for a start his jobs also included English teacher and principal French horn in the orchestra at the Ljubljana opera house – this is a book that evokes the spirit of a continent permanently in flux and catches some of the refugees from the passing of time.
The places he visits and the people he meets demonstrate how Europe’s various histories can overlap in its people, leaving some cocooned or floundering in an era to which they are not suited but making the best of it. In Trieste he plays bridge with the last man alive to have been decorated by the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, for example, while in Prague he’s there as communism falls and the continent enters a new era forged in the bright-eyed youth of hope and promise of better times. A glorious book, one that could quite comfortably have been triple the length of its 200 pages, and the perfect read to remind us why we should be a part of this bewitching continent.
With the exception of Last Days in Old Europe, which came out in paperback in February, these are all titles published in the last two or three months. They’re bound to have a higher profile as that’s when their publicity campaigns shout the loudest, but if you can make it to a bookshop try to look beyond the front tables and the shelves of new releases to the books that aren’t newly published.
You might find something even better there. A previous novel by the author of a book your mum has just really enjoyed, say, or the autobiography of the actor your friend was raving about in that series the other week. Have a browse. Read a few back covers of things that look promising. Ask a bookseller for recommendations, they really know what they’re talking about. The gift of a book is a big decision to make, but it can be one of the most rewarding moment of Christmas, for giver and receiver.