Best books for Christmas
Best books for Christmas
Clapham author Julie Anderson reveals the top novels to buy this Christmas
If you’re looking for a thought provoking and ultimately heart warming story, try The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Canongate, £8.99). An attempted suicide brings the depressed and lonely Nora Seed to a limitless library in which each book is another version of her life. She can be Nora, Olympic medallist or Arctic explorer, Nora the successful wife and mother or Nora the rock star, depending on the different choices she has made during her life. If Nora wishes she can step into and stay within any of them, but which to choose and why? Speculative fiction that celebrates the ordinary, something it shares with Capra’s quintessential Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life.
For something darker and wittier, there’s The Manningtree Witches, debut novel of poet AK Blakemore (Granta, £8.99) and short listed for the Costa First Novel Award 2021. This fictional account of the Essex witch trials of 1643 during the English Civil War is written from the point of view of the persecuted women and adroitly skewers the persecutors with earthy and exquisite language. Rebecca is the daughter of the poor and belligerent Beldam West and she has taught herself to observe her fellow villagers so as to anticipate trouble approaching. Newcomer Matthew Hopkins, about to launch his infamous witch-finding career, attracts her attention immediately. Blakemore takes names from the documents and creates living, breathing characters, ordinary folk caught up in extraordinary events as the trials begin. Enjoy them.
Further back in time and into the realms of mythology is Madeleine Millar’s Circe (Bloomsbury, £8.99). First published in 2019 when it was shortlisted for many prizes, if you haven’t caught up with it yet try its shape-shifting, spell-binding magic this Christmas. Circe ‘the witch’ is no longer a footnote to the Odyssey, here she is centre stage as she comes to terms with her own power of enchantment and begins to love humans rather than the gods from whom she is sprung. Voyaging across ancient seas, just as the book navigates through the stories we read as children, of gods and monsters, heroes and petty deities, whirlpools and war, our protagonist is one who has endured the suffering of those unwanted and feared and has learned wisdom. We learn it with her. This is a poignant and sad, but ultimately triumphant book.
Another enchantress, but in contemporary California, Tilo is the title character in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s debut novel The Mistress of Spices (Doubleday £8.99). Administering spices, magical healing and wisdom to the Indian diaspora, both wealthy and poor, we learn of her background, like something out of legend, sea serpents, pirates and the island. Her story is interwoven with those of the people she helps, until a lonely American comes into her store and she cannot read his desire. Will the spices permit her a transgression? A love story, this is also a book about immigration and assimilation into a new and different culture, as well as the call of the past. Read it eating mince pies or after Christmas pudding.
A mill village in Derbyshire is the setting for Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece Fludd (Harper Collins, £8.99) its northern grimness alleviated by the sharp black wit with which it is drawn. Written long before the Wolf Hall trilogy this novel inhabits a world shrouded in moorland fog and dour, antique morality. We meet the dusty and faith-less parish priest Father Angwen, anxious only to avoid the Bishop’s eye and the young Irish nun Philomena, desperate for freedom and a decent meal who attracts the enmity of the demonic Mother Perpetua. Late on a dark night full of rattling rain, a visitor arrives at the priest’s house. Father Fludd, a curate, brings cheroots, coffee and a sensation indescribable to many of the villagers, but which some will eventually recognise. Is he only a curate or is he really the Bishop’s spy? Absurd, true and joyous, this is a remarkable and magical book at any time of year.
Folk tales have their own magic but they also promulgate the received truths of their time, something which Clapham resident Angela Carter slyly turned upside down in her The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Vintage, £8.99). Delicious and dark, sensual and baroque, her 1979 retelling of classic folk tales like Bluebeard, Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast has never been out of print. The progenitor of films such as Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, these inventive, original and luscious stories still surprise and delight the reader. Their language is precise, evocative and intoxicating. The Imagination takes flight, but also swoops low and rootles around in the dark places, where secrets and the things unspoken of lurk. A book for reading by the hearth, with the wind whistling outside.
Julie Anderson’s latest novel is Oracle (Claret Press, £9.99). She lives in Clapham and helps organise the Clapham Book Festival.
Fantastic Christmas light displays