Christmas Gift Guide: Books

Christmas is one of the rare times most of us can catch up on reading for pleasure. It’s therefore very dispiriting to pick a dud to either give or receive. Here are our recommendations to help you avoid that pitfall:

Normal People by Sally Rooney

If you have read Sally Rooney’s wonderful second novel, you will probably already be intent on buying it as present for Christmas, maybe even for several people. It’s that kind of book, so compelling and humane, which means you will want to foist it on to friends and loved ones. It charts the changing relationship between Marianne and Connell, a pair of teenagers in Carricklea, Ireland. Connell’s mother is Marianne’s cleaner but neither of them refer to the fact at school. Rooney was already being described as “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” after her first novel, Conversations with Friends was published. Her audacious verbal facility was already on display in her debut but Normal People is a far more tender love story. It might seem like an obvious gift for any millennials in your life but the appeal of Rooney’s writing should strike a chord with readers either side of this age bracket. It was longlisted for the Booker Prize and was also named Waterstones’ book of the year. If you do buy it as a gift, you will also want your own copy as it’s a hard book to wrest out of someone else’s hands if you want to borrow it.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

Lullaby was the most read book in France in 2016 and anyone picking this up will be able to tell why. Slimani is that rare novelist who can write compulsive prose about shocking events without titillating the reader. This is the story of a nanny who murders the two infants in her care but there is no queasy build up to the crime, it is announced in the first sentence and the violence occurs offstage. Slimani’s concern is with investigating why this might have happened. Paris is turned into a bleak, lonely city and the isolation of Louise, the nanny, is sensitively drawn. You may not be convinced but you will read to the very last page. Slimani’s talents as a storyteller and prose stylist, as evidenced in this smart translation by Sam Taylor, mean this is not just a novel for crime fans. President Macron was sufficiently impressed by this novel and its author to appoint her his personal representative on French language and culture.

OK, Mr Field by Katharine Kilalea

We adored this odd, slight novel. It reminded us of Kafka or Beckett but we found it much funnier than either. Mr Field is a concert pianist whose hands are damaged in a train crash. On a whim, he decides to spend his compensation cheque on a house that he has only ever see in pictures, the replica of a Le Corbusier building, plonked on to Cape Town’s coast. The book is thrillingly strange but its great strength is the odd perfection of the language Kilalea uses. A brilliant novel for a jaded palate.

Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

We enjoyed Dolly Alderton’s dating column in the Sunday Times but were expecting her memoir to be a lighter affair. There are plenty of larks, some of them hair-raising: we were pretty tense as we read how she turned up at a stranger’s apartment in New York, via Tinder, with no money and a broken phone i.e no escape route to be told that her date only liked to have group sex. There is so much more pain, and therefore heart, in this memoir than we expected, however. This is a lovely book for a teenage niece or an adult friend. Interestingly, the male readers we’ve met love the book too but openly envy the closeness of Dolly and her friends.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

This is the book we will be asking for this Christmas, having already listened to the audio. Even if you are not the crazed fan of the former First Lady that we confess to being, the glimpse this memoir affords you behind the scenes at the White House should still be fascinating. She is candid about her feelings of resentment towards Donald Trump for fanning the flames of those who believed that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. She is honest about her own struggles with self-doubt as well as the criticisms of her appearance and behaviour she faced once her husband became the President. Our favourite section is when she visits London and talks about the connection she felt with schoolgirls she met at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington, as well as bonding with the Queen over their uncomfortable shoes. 

Patrick Melrose by Edward St Aubyn 

The collected volume of Edward St Aubyn’s highly addictive five autobiographical novels is the book to buy someone if you want them to stay out of the way this Christmas. We read it on holiday this summer and found it quite difficult to put down, even at mealtimes. David Nicholls superlative screenplay for the five part TV series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jennifer Jason Leigh, aired this summer and was life-changing television for many viewers. This is a brilliant series of novels for thinking about fatherhood, trauma, addiction and how to break a destructive cycle. The novels are also wonderfully entertaining. If you feel that you, or the person you are buying for doesn’t have time for all five novels, start with Never Mind and if you want to really laugh, Some Hope (which features a cameo from Princess Margaret) should do the trick. And if the writing gets under your skin or that of the recipient, you’ll want to read this fascinating New Yorker profile of the author.

— Alex Peake-Tomkinson
5th December 2018