Some people can be very particular about what they read, making Christmas gifts a gamble and book buying a chore.
Looking for a present that won’t get left in the library or used to prop up a coffee table? Look no further.
Big Issue books editor Jane Graham lays out all the best books that will have your very particular pals jumping for joy this Christmas.
For the obsessive bibliophile
The Madman’s Library by Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon & Schuster, £25)
The joy of flicking through this gorgeous book of curious wonders cannot be understated. Brooke-Hitching has already spoiled us with some delightful collections of ideas and images (see also The Phantom Atlas, The Sky Atlas, The Golden Atlas) but this might be his most enchanting yet; a collection of stunning pictures from some of the strangest books ever produced, accompanied by the fruits of his forensic investigations into their creation. Your heart will swell just to see it on your shelf.
For the 2020 rocket-propelled Austenite
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury, £12.99)
This perfectly-pitched, witty and switched-on novel packs enough punch to take out Tyson Fury, and sparked some pleasingly nuanced conversations about modern romance, social protocol, and race and class privilege.
It shares genes with Sally Rooney in its understanding of contemporary tippy-toed relationships, but goes deeper into how they are influenced by the complex ever-changing rules of language and culture, without ever being boring or preachy or predictable. Quite a feat.
For your favourite formidable Scotswoman
Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes (HarperCollins, £12.99)
From its delectable title to its heart-swelling final pages, Innes’ book bursts with energy and chutzpah. This tale of a doggedly determined young girl’s journey from a damaging childhood in Scotland to pop star success is told through the memories of those who knew the protagonist, who takes her own life at the start of the book.
Her portrait is thus fragmented and often contradictory, and as a result perhaps more truthful than most first-person confessions. A fiery feminist who is sometimes impervious to others’ quiet pain, Clio not only convinces as a fully realised woman of emotional death, her story takes us neatly through the flames of the Thatcher, Blair and Brexit years. Whoosh!
For the current affairs enthusiast
Democracy for Sale by Peter Geoghegan (Head of Zeus, £14.99)
Level-headed right-minded investigative reporter Geoghegan has subtitled his damned state of the nation missive ‘Dark Money and Dirty Politics’, and that’s exactly what it uncovers, in as fair and unflinching an assessment of western democracy as you’ll read this year.
Power, corruption and lies are called out not by an agenda-driven lobbyist, but a diligent journalist burning with a passion to challenge injustice and expose greed, and willing to do the legwork to back up his arguments.
For the inspiration-seeking catastrophist
Weather by Jenny Offill (Granta, £12.99)
Offill’s deep-burrowing book, which I described back in February as ‘a very funny paranoid wreck of a novel’ (don’t you love reviewers who quote their own excellent reviews? I know I do), has garnered many admirers through the year.
A quick refresher read reminds me of its great appeal; what begins as a smart, sassy zeitgeist capture focusing on worst-case scenarios and lives sacrificed to terrors grows into a touching Anne Tyler-esque reflection on the pain of passing years and an ageing woman’s fear of losing her significance in others’ lives. It strikes many deeply hidden chords.
For the romantic cemetery-daunderer
A Tomb with a View by Peter Ross (Headline, £20)
Some news journalists go freelance to cash in on the instant gratification of celebrity culture. Scottish journalist Peter Ross has done something different; his study of cemetery culture has built such a loyal following you could almost say he’s created a new genre.
Ross’ development into a sensitive and empathetic observer of social ritual has culminated in this treasure; a walk through the graveyards of Britain guided by one of the most engaging wordsmiths willing to take you by the hand.
For the nostalgic music obsessive
Broken Greek by Pete Paphides (Quercus, £20)
There are a tonne of music-related memoirs by songwriters and music journalists out there, but this funny, soulful, coming-of-age autobiography will get under your skin like no other this year.
Reminiscing about his British childhood in a Greek immigrant family, Paphides has a natural charm which leaves you rooting for the shy, awkward young boy who grew up behind a fish-and-chip counter in Birmingham and ended up a refuted music writer. Resistance is futile.
For your favourite empathetic news junkie (come on, we all have one)
Peace Talks by Tim Finch (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
Many news reporters have written novels, but this is the one of the best. It combines Finch’s expert understanding of international relations with a very human and touching story about love and loneliness, offering along the way insights into both the terrible impact of political brinksmanship and the often funny pettiness which characterises negotiations (one can only imagine how the People’s Front of Judea-style squabbles have blossomed over Brexit).
It has poetry in its bones, but is never portentous or dreamy or indulgent. Its understanding of how individual human relationships, whether global or personal, govern every aspect of our lives makes it a profound and memorable read.
For the half-broken soul in need of hope
Coming Undone by Terri White (Canongate, £14.99)
Editor-in-chief of Empire magazine, White is a renowned and enviable high achiever who looks like she has it made. Which might be why this searingly frank autobiography detailing an abusive childhood and consequent breakdown took so many by surprise, and left many others hiding a secret, potentially ruinous past trembling with gratitude.
It’s not just the courage White shows in telling the truth of her troubled past, it’s also how eloquently she recalls it; this isn’t the memoir of a celebrity, it’s the story of a writer. And so much finer for it.
For your big-hearted best pal
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Pan Macmillan, £14.99)
The breakout hit of the year, this Booker Prize winner about a tough upbringing in 1980’s Glasgow might have escaped those who couldn’t face reading what looks like a misery memoir in the middle of a pandemic.
Fear not; while the pictures of Shuggie’s environment might be in black and white, this debut novel is rich with colour, humour and warmth. It doesn’t sugarcoat Shuggie’s blighted childhood, but it brings to life such an engaging, nuanced and authentic character in Shuggie it is quite impossible not to fall in love both with him and his charismatic creator.
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