If you are someone who receives a present from me at Christmas, don’t read on! I don’t want anyone to ruin their surprise. I love giving and receiving books at Christmas. We have a rule in our house, that apart from the authors I LOVE and pre-order, I’m not allowed to buy books after October so that my wish list is up to date and can be used. My family know how much I appreciate their bookish gifts but they also know that we’re rapidly running out of book shelves and might have to adopt a ‘one in – one out’ policy for a while. Of course my ARC shelf gets fuller by the week, but I do like to have final copies and support the author, especially those published by small indie publishers. I always say to my stepdaughters, when they ask me what I want for Christmas ‘a book and some chocolate’ and they’re now used to Sundays where I’m in pyjamas, snuggled up on the chaise langue with Baggins the cat on my knee, chocolate at my side and a book on the go. If you give me a book at Christmas, it means so much because you’re giving me a doorway into another world. I stay home a lot, especially in recent times, due to being susceptible to viruses and my MS and back injury getting progressively worse. I feel less alone when I have a great book I can get into and I love to share my finds at Christmas. I also love to find that one book that suits someone perfectly and when we catch up and they tell me all about reading it, I am always so happy. Here are some of the books I’m gifting this year.
The Christmas Poems by Carol Ann Duffy.
I loved Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture and gifted it a few times to different friends. I often avoid ‘themed’ books at this time of year but this is a beauty. For her last ten years as Poet Laureate, Duffy has produced an annual Christmas poem taking us to places as diverse as the famous 1914 Christmas Day truce where German and British soldiers played a game of football together, to a lesser known 17th Century festival held on the frozen River Thames. There are ten poems in all, each one beautifully illustrated by artists like Lara Hawthorne and my personal favourite Rob Ryan. I’ll be buying this for people who like poetry and art, but also in bundles of homemade goodies like iced gingerbread and chocolate pudding truffles that we make a couple of days before Christmas. This is a lovely family book to keep and look at whenever you need a hit of Christmas.
Carol Ann Duffy Christmas Poems Published on 25th November by Picador.
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce.
This is a total change of pace. A fantastically adventurous story about one woman’s quest for a golden beetle, but also about female friendship, finding the confidence to place importance on your own dreams and ultimately carving out your own space to be a woman who’s truly herself. I love Rachel Joyce’s work so I had high hopes for this novel and it didn’t disappoint. We follow Margery Benson who has a devastating moment of clarity in 1950, leaves her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist. Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves. I’m going to buy this for my feminist friends who will fall in love with Margery and her courage. I’m also going to buy it for my friends stuck in rut after lockdown and needing some inspiration. I know it worked for me!
Published in paperback on 21st April 2021 by Black Swan.
The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers.
Those two words on the front cover of this novel were enough to whet my appetite and I know exactly which friends will be as drawn to it as I was. ‘Decadent and macabre’ is a good summary of this novel which I wasn’t sure of at first, but came to appreciate as we travelled back in time to Belle Epoch Paris and a secret circus who perform by invitation only. Just to give you a taste of what to expect, the special invite is alive so if you tear it, it will bleed. Lara’s boyfriend Todd disappears on the eve of their wedding, never to be seen again. His disappearance echoes that of another young man thirty years before. Lara has spent the past year trying to find out what happened, alongside Todd’s best friend Ben who is the sheriff of Kerrigan Falls. However, Lara isn’t an ordinary girl, something we see as she enchants her own wedding dress. There are powers that seem to be hereditary, as Lara discovers when her investigating uncovers one of her great-grandmother’s journals. As she reads, she learns of a secret circus, one that appears to the person with a ticket. What will she find there and will it bring her fiancé back? Just as she starts to develop feelings for another. This is a perfect book for those who love fantasy and magical. Give to fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal and A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington.
Midnight in Everwood by M.A. Kuzniar.
This is the perfect Christmas book because there are some beautiful special editions lurking at high street and indie book stores. This is one of those novels that splurging on a signed and special edition is absolutely worth it, especially for someone important to you. This is historical fiction, set in turn of the 20th Century Nottingham. It’s also a retelling of a Christmas story that most of us will know through Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music and grunge to the ballet. The author takes The Nutcracker and tells us a story of a young woman being confined by her class – Marietta Stelle wants to pursue her love of dancing and become a ballerina. However, Christmas is approaching and she must finish her Christmas Eve performance and take up her expected place in society. When a neighbouring townhouse is taken by Dr Drosselmeier, a mysterious toy maker, he becomes involved in the sets for the production. However, his work contains magic, very dark magic that transports Marietta to a sugar palace in an enchanted woodland. Will she ever get home again or is she trapped in Everwood for ever?
Published by HQ 28th October 2021
The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield.
I watched an interview with Chris Hadfield and knew this would be a great read for some of the men on my Christmas List. Chris was a test pilot in the Air Force when he was selected for astronaut training. He’s been up to the space station twice and in the interview he talked about doing a space walk to make repairs outside the station. In this thriller he takes us back to the Cold War and one final mission to the moon. Cleverly, this is history, but an alternate history. Three astronauts are trapped together in the lunar module, a quarter of a million miles from home. They’re also a quarter of a million miles from help. The political stakes are high for this mission and NASA are under pressure. There’s a rival Russian crew making for the moon at the same time, both hoping to retrieve an important bounty from the moon’s surface. Controller Kaz Zemekis must keep his crew on track, while feeling the pressure of the Russians hot on their heels. The Houston control room is close to breaking point. What they don’t know is not everyone on Apollo 18 is who they appear to be. I was lucky enough to have an ARC of this tense and fascinating novel, so I can vouch for it’s quality. Of course the technical know-how and experience the author has, bring this novel to life. It feels like you’re there and it really helps orientate you round this alien scene. I find it strangely freeing to imagine floating round in space, but here it’s incredibly claustrophobic too. This has a great write up from director James Cameron and Andy Weir, the author of The Martian. I agree with them that this is fascinating, heart-stopping and relentless.
Published by Quercus 12th October 2021.
Tenderness by Alison MacLeod.
I’m lucky enough to have a Mum who absolutely loved literature and without that I don’t think I’d be blogging and writing my own novel. Her favourite author was D.H. Lawrence and I remember being taken to see his house when I was little, and how happy that made her. We watched all the film adaptations together too. So this huge doorstep of a book is the obvious choice. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was always on our bookshelves, but it took me all the way to my late twenties before I read it for myself. What I was most stunned by was that this wasn’t a dirty book, it was so many things: an exploration of the aftermath of WW1; the disintegration of class boundaries, particularly the reduction of the aristocracy; disability and it’s effect on a person’s identity and their marriage; mechanisation and it’s effect on warfare, as well as positioning it opposite nature. Most of all it’s a story of love. I re-read it regularly and think it’s so complex, fascinating and tender. That’s where Alison McLeod’s book is pitched – is this a book that should be banned as obscene or is it a picture of tenderness? We jump the decades from Lawrence’s death bed where he takes account of his life, a betrayal committed in the war years and an image of red-headed woman in an Italian courtyard. Then we meet Jacqueline, travelling with her husband when she slips into a NYC court where a book is on trial. In a library, a young man and woman meet and make love. These stories are bound together by that one question; is it obscenity or is it tenderness? This is a moving book, beautifully written and a treatise on the power of fiction. This is wrapped ready for my Mum on Christmas Day.
Published on Bloomsbury Publishing 12th September 2021.
The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith.
As my Dad gets older and his health has been getting worse, he’s had to do a lot of rest and recuperation and he has started reading more. I’ve learned a lot about what he enjoys reading and it turns out we both enjoy dystopian fiction. I bought him The Girl With All The Gifts one year and we got to have our first book conversation. This year I’m buying him another of my favourites, The Waiting Rooms. This is a tough read in a pandemic, but interesting, chilling and strangely prescient. In a not too distant future, a government ruling states that those over seventy-five years of age can’t have access to new antibiotics. Years of overuse have led to drug resistance so something as simple as a cat scratch can kill. Drastic action was needed to ensure that younger people have access to a small supply of newly created antibiotics. If an elderly person gets a scratch or infection it’s a death sentence. They have two choices, either wait to die a painful death in a state run hospital known as The Waiting Rooms. Alternatively you can visit a clinic where a doctor administers a lethal dose of medication, in a glass of whiskey should you choose. Kate works at such a clinic by day, but by night has been searching for her birth mother. However, her birth mother may hold many secrets about the crisis and Kate might not be the only one looking for her. I felt completely immersed in this world whether it was a version of our future or a pre-crisis South Africa which appears beautifully vivid against the bleak future. Haunting, tense and eerily recognisable, this book was one of my top 20 of 2020.
Published by Orenda Books April 2020
SAS Sea King Down by Mark ‘Splash’ Aston and Stuart Tootal.
This is another choice for my Dad, who served in the Royal Engineers and may have been selected for SAS training (he won’t confirm it, but certain things he says suggest this). He loves reading these series, even if he does grumble a bit about people revealing their experiences. Mark ‘Splash’ Aston joined the SAS in 1979 as part of D Squadron, SAS. This left him in prime position for deployment to the Falklands in 1982. They were at the frontline of taking back the islands, facing twin enemies of extreme weather and determined Argentinian troops. It was during one skirmish that the Sea King helicopter they were travelling in crashed into the freezing South Atlantic. Only nine survived and Splash was one of them, rescued and sent to a hospital ship nearby. Suspected of having a broken bones in his neck, he defied orders and hospital advice to return to his Squadron and finish what he’d started. Written with an experienced author, Stuart Tootal, the book gives us an insider view of an SAS unit and a war that was fought in my lifetime, in fact my cousin served out there in the RAF. I felt the tension and the hardship of serving in the SAS and I felt I was reading a truly authentic experience.
Published 13th May 2021 by Michael Joseph
The Snow Song by Sally Gardner.
This is a stunningly beautiful book that has always been appreciated wherever I’ve gifted it. It’s a feminist fable, and a love story with a touch of magic realism. We’re taken to a land perched on a mountain, covered by forests, and to one tribal village. The village elders are all men and tradition is all, including marital tradition. Our heroine Edith has fallen in love with a shepherd who took a trip away, promising he would return to her. The elders want her to marry the local butcher, and start to apply pressure, but Edith turns mute just as the snow starts to fall. The elders agree that if the shepherd returns when the snow melts she can have her wish, but if not she must marry the butcher. She will not speak until her love returns and this enchantment has far-reaching consequences for the villagers as well as her. Her stand starts to inspire other women in the village. This is a fable about the power of speech, and of silence. When everyone around you is shouting, silence can be the best way to be heard.
Published 12th Nov 2020 by HQ.
Medusa: Girl Behind The Myth by Jessie Burton.
Finally, we have this little gem from one of my favourite writers. Jessie Burton has taken one of Greek myth’s most well-known monsters and given her a feminist retelling, one I’m dying to share with my oldest stepdaughter. The gods have exiled Medusa to a far-flung island and turned her beautiful hair into living snakes. They are the only company she has until one day a boat comes to shore with the most beautiful boy on board. Perseus arrives full of charm and has the luck of the gods with him. He disrupts Medusa’s lonely existence and brings with him a future full of desire and betrayal. I have purchased signed editions of this beautiful book for friends and family who I know will love it. The illustrations by Olivia Lomenech Gill are gorgeous and the foil front of the special edition is stunning.
Published 28th October 2021 by Bloomsbury YA.