For booklovers, aside from receiving well-chosen books, there is a real satisfaction in finding the perfect book to give. It’s not always easy though, so, if you’re looking for inspiration – you’ve come to the right place.
As we did last year, we asked our Shiny reviewers and friends to tell us which book or books they’d like to give for Christmas and why.
We’ve included links to reviews where available, and ‘BUY’ links for the Book Depository for most books. (If you click through to the Book Depository and make a purchase, we will earn a small commission which helps to pay to maintain Shiny – thank you).
Meredith Smith of Dolce Bellezza
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan was a book of breathtaking beauty. I can’t think of anyone with whom it wouldn’t make a connection. Ryan poignantly portrays our roles as children, parents, or spouses. He also includes an immigrant experience which is the most touching I’ve ever read. Three short, and seemingly separate, stories combine at the end to an exquisite conclusion which has been masterfully wrought. Listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, it is the best book I have read all year. Review, BUY.
Ryder Carroll’s The Bullet Journal Method is a marvelous explanation of the bullet journal system, giving the reasons why he devised this analog method for a digital world and how to best implement it. For those who wish to become organized and purposeful in the new year, while creating a memory of each day, this would be a perfect gift. BUY.
Annabel – Shiny Editor
Anyone who has ever enjoyed watching classic war movies and thrillers will get a big hit of nostalgia on reading ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’: On Where Eagles Dare by Geoff Dyer. This short book of film criticism is dedicated to one of his favourite films, taking us from the opening credits through the mission for Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood’s team to extract a captured General from the impregnable Schloss Adler and their escape. It’s considered, chock full of references and very funny. Shiny review BUY
Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale – Told in a dual timeframe, the present day and his teenage years decades previously, this is the story of Eustace. It’s a wonderful blend of coming of age story, small-town childhood, friendship and finding oneself, bound up with a love of music. Gale writes with sensitivity and humour to make Take Nothing With You a delightful and engaging read with a most lovable protagonist which I heartily recommend. Shiny review BUY
Peter Reason – http://www.peterreason.eu/
It has been an amazing year for stimulating books about the more-than-human-world, as well as a year of deeply alarming news about the state of the climate, loss of species, and other catastrophes.
My perspective is as always on our relationship as modern humans to the wider world. Anyone interested in the state of the British countryside would appreciate Mark Cocker’s Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife before It’s Too Late? which is part history of conservation, part polemic, part exquisite nature writing. Shiny review BUY
Simon Thomas – Shiny Editor at Large
Your first thought, for a post-Queen’s-speech curl up with a book, might not be a book-length essay about translation – but can I encourage you to press This Little Art by Kate Briggs on anybody in your life who loves language and literature? Briggs translated some work by Roland Barthes, but this book is much broader than that – a fascinating, compelling, whirling look at the philosophy of translation and the life of a translator. The back of the book says it has the momentum of a novel – I was sceptical, but it really does. (And it doesn’t hurt that the Fitzcarraldo edition is sleek and rather beautiful.) Simon’s review
Anne Goodwin at Annecdotal
The books I enjoy are often quite miserablist, and not always suitable to give as gifts. But I’ve read two zany debuts this year I can happily recommend.
Published in 2017 by Sceptre, Spaceman of Bohemia is a lovely novel that almost defies description. While some novels suffer from the weight of too many stories, Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut manages to be much bigger than the sum of its many parts: sci-fi adventure; love story; sociopolitical history of the Czech Republic and homage to Prague; psychodrama of how the actions of one generation shape the next; a meditation on identity, adaption to loss, and what makes us human. Anne’s review BUY
Published this year by Saraband, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas would delight lovers of Russian history, offbeat detectives and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Shona McMonagle, the feisty heroine, is invited by the 200-year-old founder of her alma mater to serve as a goodwill ambassador across the centuries: a concept so silly it could have misfired, but Olga Wojtas is perfectly in control of her material, with just the right blend of intelligence, comedy and tension. Unusually for me, I found myself several times laughing out loud. Anne’s review BUY
Hayley Anderton – Desperate Reader
I generally think cookbooks are a personal choice, and without a firm indication that they’re wanted a slightly risky present, but these were two of my most anticipated titles of the year, and so far exceeded expectations that I’ll be giving them at Christmas as well. Christmas and Other Winter Feasts is the second book Tom Parker Bowles has written for Fortnum & Mason. It’s a delightful combination of the luxurious with the practical all mixed up with Edward Bawden’s beautiful illustrations and descriptions of Fortnum’s comestibles which are the stuff of foody fantasy. BUY
Caroline Eden’s Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes is beautiful. The cover shimmers like a shoal of sardines, and whilst it has plenty of recipes, it’s more of a travel journal with a foody emphasis than a traditional cookbook. For anyone interested in the area, and specifically in the three cities Eden focuses on (Odessa, Istanbul, and Trabzon) this is going to be a treat. Not everyone can pull this sort of book off with grace, but Eden makes it look easy; it is a complete treasure trove of words, images, and recipes.
These books are both brilliant!
Andrew Blackman – https://andrewblackman.net/
Helen Parry of A Gallimaufry
My first recommendation is aptly wintery: A Winter’s Promise, by Christelle Dabos, translated by Hildegarde Serle. I first read about it on Annabel’s blog [here] and wanted to read it immediately. It’s set in an extraordinary world which has fragmented into ‘arks’, land-and-sea masses which revolve around the Core of the World. Each ark has its particular culture, its ‘family spirit’ and its unusual skills which manifest themselves in its populace. Ophelia, who is able to read the history of objects and their owners just by touching them, can also travel through mirrors. Forced into an arranged marriage with the equally reluctant Thorn, she is sent far from her home to the icy Pole Ark, riddled with intrigue and illusion. Why has this marriage been arranged and why must the engagement and, indeed, Ophelia herself, be kept secret? Whom can she trust? This is the first in a quartet and has drawn comparisons to Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, but it put me most in mind of Frances Hardinge’s novels. BUY
At the moment I am reading What is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a collection of exquisite short stories by Helen Oyeyemi (pbk, Picador, 2016), all steeped in the uncanny. For readers who love stories about secret libraries, vengeful women, animated puppets, peevish ghosts and mysteries which cannot be unlocked, these magical and discombobulating tales and tales within tales teeter at that place where realism meets fable. Charming and ambiguous. BUY
And finally, a wonderful biography by Frances Wilson: The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (pbk, Faber & Faber, 2009). This is a perceptive and generous attempt to understand the brilliant paradox that was Dorothy by focusing on the two years she spent writing her famous journals in Dove Cottage. Also it makes you want to rush out and lie in a ditch staring at clouds. Helen’s review BUY
Karen Langley of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings
For adventurous readers who like a quirky or unusual read that will take them in unexpected directions, I would recommend a gift of The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte. An impressionistic, meditative book which may or may not be autobiography, it explores Soviet Moscow in its early years with pen portraits of many well known characters of the times (most strikingly for me in the form of Mayakovsky and Bulgakov). It’s an unfinished masterpiece which lingers in the mind. Karen’s review
If you need a gift of a more modern work which is still as thought-provoking as Malaparte’s novel, then The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin might be a good choice. It’s a book that starts off with a man suffering from what seems to be a simple case of memory loss; but this is soon revealed to be anything but a normal medical condition. Instead, the protagonist can apparently remember much further back than his age would permit, and the reader is as flummoxed as he is by the situation. Building in a crime story, love and loss, as well as a long view of a century’s history in Russia, it’s a powerful and immersive work guaranteed to keep you up late to finish it. Shiny review BUY
Finally, if you want to gift some non-fiction, Gods of Metal by Eric Schlosser will absorb and unsettle any reader. Focusing on the resistance to nuclear weapons in the USA, Schlosser gives a potted history of the Plowshares group, as well as revealing just how much more likely it is that we’ll meet our nuclear end from accident rather than war. Chilling stuff, and perhaps not obvious Christmas reading – but useful to prepare yourself before the announcement of where the Doomsday Clock stands as we ready ourselves for 2019! Karen’s review BUY
Karen Heenan-Davies of Bookertalk
The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola – Since this is the season of the greatest shopping extravaganza of the year I thought I would choose a book that is set in the world of retailing. The Ladies Paradise brings to life the world of the department store, a completely new phenomenon in the 19th century, and the means they devised to persuade customers to part with their cash. BUY
A slim but intense novella about a nanny who morphs from little miss perfect into a monster who ends up killing the children in her care. Not exactly cheerful reading but guaranteed to keep readers engrossed. BUY
David Harris of Blue Book Balloon
Set in the snowy Eastern European forests long ago, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is the story of Miryem, daughter of the village moneylender, motherless and abused Wanda, and privileged Irina. Novik skilfully weaves together the lives of the three young women in a dazzling story that explores not only the romance of a fairytale (complete with a brooding and mercurial otherworld King) but the horrors of poverty and anti-Semitism. Here, magic is rooted in the real – things like food, money and warmth matter, and there are awful consequences for a young woman when men scheme to use her, but trust, friendship, community and kindness can overcome, if given a chance. This is modern fantasy writing at its very best. Shiny Review BUY
Laura Tisdall – https://drlauratisdall.wordpress.com/
Nancy Campbell‘s The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate seeks out ice wherever it can be found – whether that’s at a curling rink in Scotland, glaciers in Switzerland, or ancient lakes in Antarctica. It’s a beautifully-written, compelling and intelligent travelog that would make a brilliant gift for a wide range of people. The design of the hardback edition, with its subtle gold decorations, stands out as well. BUY
Susan Osborne – A Life in Books
Little by Edward Carey– Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Little takes its readers from eighteenth-century Switzerland to Revolutionary France finally arriving at its destination in Baker Street. When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who make his living from modelling wax busts. Fleeing the bailiffs, these two take themselves off to France where they become embroiled in the French Revolution. Grudges are borne, scores settled in the worst of ways and when it’s all over Marie is alone. Sharp and resourceful as ever she finds her own pragmatic way. With her sly wit, Marie is an engaging narrator whose story is made all the more enjoyable by Carey’s line drawings. An entertaining, erudite and absorbing piece of good old-fashioned storytelling, Little is the perfect present for readers wanting to curl up and lose themselves in a book. Susan’s review BUY
Harriet – Shiny editor
My recommendation has to be a book I reviewed recently on Shiny – Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner. You might think you are too old for fairy stories but think again – these are fairies like you’ve never known them, living in a variety of different kingdoms each with its own special character. The stories are funny, quirky, strangely moving. Perfect for a Christmas read. Shiny review BUY
Rob Spence – robspence.org.uk
Clive James, The River in the Sky – This is the latest in Clive James’s astonishing late prolific spurt of creativity. As a man facing death, he here reflects in sinuous free verse on “the fragile treasures of his life”, moving from one recollection to another in a series of his customarily brilliant images. This is by turns comic and profound, and often poignant as the old man relives the experiences of his younger self. Unflinching, moving and occasionally hilarious, this autobiographical epic addresses itself to the most important questions of existence, and finds an accommodation witthe vicissitudes of life. For young and old alike. BUY
Jonathan Coe, Middle England – Brexit looms over everything in Coe’s satire of contemporary English life. Coe once again turns to some of his familiar characters from The Rotters’ Club and Closed Circle, in particular Benjamin Trotter, now a semi-recluse still working on his magnum opus. The wide cast of characters are seen at key moments in recent history – the elections of 2010 and 2015, the riots of 2011, the Olympic Games of 2012, and of course the referendum. Coe shows how toxic and divisive politicians affect the lives of ordinary people, and it’s plain that he is dismayed by the current state of the country. That said, there is plenty of humour, and his customary lightness of touch to make this novel much more than a rant. For your Leave-voting great aunt. BUY
Dejan Tiago-Stankovic, Estoril – This is a lovely, immersive tale, set in a hotel in neutral Lisbon during the war, and therefore the site of intrigue, romance and espionage. The central character, an abandoned Jewish refugee boy, encounters historical figures such as ex-King Carol of Romania, Ian Fleming and Antoine de St Exupéry, as well as some shady fictional characters. Episodic and by turns funny and poignant, this would suit anyone who likes to be entertained, but also informed. BUY
Elaine Simpson-Long – Random Jottings
La Bella Figura by Kamin Mohammadi. The author, having reached a stage in her life when she needs to rethink her future having broken up with a lover, been made redundant and feeling unhealthy and overweight, goes to Florence. She arrives in cold, wet and rain and feeling utterly miserable. As the weather changes and she learns to enjoy and appreciate herself, La Bella Figura, she finds her life slowly changing for the better. I loved this book and, having reached a similar stage in my life, I found it quite inspirational. Elaine’s review BUY
I am a huge fan of detective stories, particularly those of the so-called Golden Age and if they are also your choice, then the Classic Crime Series published by the British Library will be perfect. Earlier this year two titles by E C R Lorac were reprinted and sold very well. I read them and loved them and since then have embarked on tracking down other titles by this author. To my delight another Lorac is now available Murder by Matchlight. As well as being a good detective story the background, that of London in war time, is atmospheric and beautifully described. BUY
One of my favourite history authors is Helen Rappaport. She has written several books on Russia and the Romanovs and I can recommend them all. The latest The Race to Save the Romanovs tells of the ill-fated attempts to extract the family from Russia and it reveals the ineptness and self interest of various countries and governments, including George V, who dithered and vacillated until it was too late. In truth, there was a very narrow window of opportunity to save the family and we all know the terrible results, but this book raises the What If question and leave us to ponder. Shiny review BUY
I’m on a mission to get everyone reading Mick Herron. His very unusual and unusually witty and elegant spy novels are my find of this year. Start with Slow Horses and then there are 4 more to relish. pub John Murray. Shiny review BUY
My friends Linda Newbery and Celia Rees have wonderful new YA books out this autumn and I’m flying the flag for them with no shame whatsoever. They’re really good books for anyone, not just the young. Newbery’s The Key to Flambards is published by David Fickling Books and Rees is published by Pushkin Press. BUY
Finally, one of my favourite ever writers, whom I recommend whenever I can: Dorothy Whipple. Start with Someone at a Distance and go on to read all her superb novels and short stories, beautifully published by Persephone Books. BUY
Liz Dexter – http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.
I would love to give Viking Britain by Thomas Williams to any lover of history who might want to know more about a hidden corner of history, or one they think they know but probably don’t really. Shiny review BUY
Cathy Newman‘s Bloody Brilliant Women would be my gift of choice for the feminists, young and old, in my circle, and make that people of all genders, because everyone needs to know about the role these amazing women have had in the history, technology and social development of the last century and a bit. Shiny Review BUY
Finally, not reviewed by me, but in the unlikely event that any of my politically and historically minded friends who think hard about the world HAVEN’T read Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered yet, they will find that under their tree from me. Shiny Review BUY
Rebecca Foster – Bookish Beck
I have four recommendations for Christmas gifts for book lovers of various ages. Tilly and the Bookwanderers by Anna James is the charming first book in a new middle-grade series, Pages & Co., about an eleven-year-old girl who can travel into the pages of her favourite books, including Anne of Green Gables and Alice in Wonderland, from her grandparents’ London bookshop. It’s perfect for preteens and their parents. BUY
As a nonfiction counterpart, I commend to you Bookworm by Lucy Mangan, a nostalgic, chronological tour through the books she loved most as a child and adolescent. Mangan writes in a witty, cheeky style about the joys of being a lifelong reader. Shiny review BUY
Sharing her fond memories of childhood trips to the library is Susan Orlean, whose The Library Book is coming out in early January. You’ll want to get pre-orders in for this quirky book, which is actually two books in one: the first is about the history of the Los Angeles Central Library, including a devastating fire that hit it in 1986 and how the city recovered; the second is in praise of libraries in general: what they offer to society, and how they work, in a digital age. BUY
And finally, as a reference book for the shelf or coffee table, you’ll need to distribute copies of Literary Landscapes, edited by John Sutherland. Its 75 essays illuminate the real-life settings of fiction from Jane Austen’s time to today, with plenty of accompanying full-colour illustrations. It would make an especially suitable gift for someone heading off to study English at university. Rebecca’s review BUY
Hilary Spurling’s Anthony Powell – A lively, readable book about the quiet colossus of English writing in the 20th century. Spurling was a friend of Powell’s, so she calls him Tony and soft pedals on occasion, but this is still by far the best introduction to Anthony Powell, much much better than the author’s own almost unreadable journals. It positions him in English literary society, and gives a lot valuable insight into the books. Anthony Powell is not Nick Jenkins, nor was meant to be, but it is an easy identification, especially as the central figure of Dance to the Music of Time is such a quiet, background, almost shadowy figure – but this book makes the breadth and range of his stimuli absolutely clear, and is itself very entertaining, especially up to the 1940s, when the action lessens and the book moves more quickly over the years. If you know the Dance, this is essential; if you don’t, this is a fine account of a whole literary epoch and will make you want to. You can read this on Boxing Day, and the Dance over New Year! BUY