Christmas books

Coming up for air after an exhausting week in Sydney..
I was asked earlier if I had a list of recommended books for Christmas, so I thought I’d just talk about a few books I’ve enjoyed recently, suggest also some lesser-known classics, –and also note some books I hope I might find in my stocking!
I know I’ve written about Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell before, but I’m recommending it again. It’s a great read, big, bulky, intense, funny and magical. It’ll last you all holidays! Then there’s Jane R.Goodall’s atmospheric crime novel set in 1960’s London, The Walker (but though it’s got a cracking pace, genuine chills and good characters, I found the end to be a bit abrupt and disappointing). For children, I recommend the new Philip Pullman, The Scarecrow and His Servant, a lovely, fresh, witty and tender story of a daft, self-satisfied but endearing scarecrow and his servant, bright-as-a-button Jack. beautifully presented and illustrated, this is a book to treasure, in the same vein as the author’s marvellous books for younger readers, Clockwork and I Was a Rat.

Another beautiful book for children is the re-issued Christmas story by one of my childhood favourites, Rumer Godden–Holly and Ivy, beautifully illustrated by Christian Birmingham, about a doll called Holly and a little girl named Ivy.
In the thriller/spy genre, a couple of newcomers on the block with some great real-life credentials: Australian Warren Reed’s Code Cicada, and British Stella Remington’s At Risk. Warren Reed is ex-ASIS, and he knows what he’s talking about in this tale of an Australian traitor who tries to strike a weird deal with the Chinese over a bugging scandal, but who actually double-bluffs everybody–it’s a very realistic-feeling novel, with lots of intricate plotting and arcane detail, but also good characters. Stella Rimington, ex-director of MI5, also uses her background to great advantage in a novel about Islamist terrorism in Britain which is very interesting though flawed, it seems to me, because of the way in which the terrorists are depicted–I couldn’t quite believe in them or their motives. Still, it’s a cracking read too, with good pace and interesting detail.
Peter Kocan’s new novel, very autobiographical in tone, Fresh Fields, is also well worth looking for. In its spare prose is the heartbreaking story of a neglected boy on the edge of life and hope, who can only hold himself together through myth and story–and who eventually builds up to do something terrible. It’s a moving account of Peter Kocan’s own blighted childhood and lonely adolescence, which culminated of course in real life in him taking a pot-shot at Arthur Calwell, ending up in a mental hospital(the scene of his other two books. The Treatment and the Cure).
The best non-fiction book I’ve read recently is Helen Garner’s beautiful, honest and moving Joe Cinque’s Consolation. This account of a terrible real-life murder case, and its effects on the victim’s family, is beautifully judged, told with great clarity, compassion and intelligence, and absolutely gripping.
I’d like to recommend a couple of my favourite classics too, which I have read many times and often try to convert people to–they are not well-known but are really, really worth seeking out. One’s early 20th century Norwegian author Sigrid Undset’s marvellous trilogy, published in one volume under the title of Kristin Lavransdatter. Drawing on Icelandic saga, Norse myth, and history, this epic tale of 14th century Norway is exciting, tragic, beautiful, intensely felt, intricately detailed, baggy and astonishing., with a cast of unforgettable characters, especially the eponymous heroine Kristin and her fey, violent, romantic husband Erlend and her steadfast, strong and loving father Lavran. If publishers had any sense they’d be reissuing this again; you can get it through Amazon, though. Would love to see a new TV series made of Kristin; Ingmar Bergmann made an apparently lovely but rarely-seen film of the first part of the trilogy, The Bridal Wreath. Undset wrote other books set in medieval Norway; but this one’s my absolute favourite.
The other little-known classic I’d like to bring to your attention is David Thomson’s beautiful ‘The People of the Sea’. This is about Celtic stories of the selkies, or seal-folk, but also about the communities where such stories were told. First published in 1954, it is a gorgeous, nostalgic yet never sentimental, lboth lyrical and tough, account of a world that’s vanished, and of an extraordinary insight into the natural world and the mysteries people swim in every day. Canongate in the UK (who do a great job re-issuing Celtic classics), published a new edition of it a couple of years ago, with a foreword by Seamus Heaney. It’s well worth seeking out.
In the same vein are two other wonderful classics, modern ones this time: Alastair Macleod’s magnificent novel of the McDonalds of Cape Breton Island, No Great Mischief, and his collection of short stories, Island, also about Cape Breton Island.
To finish up, here are some books I’d like to get in the stocking: Martin Cruz Smith’s new Arkady Renko novel, Wolves Eat Dogs, and Philippa Gregory’s The Virgin’s Lover. Also Tom Wolfe’s new one, I Am Charlotte Wood.
Anyone else got any recommendations?

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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Welcome back, Sophie.

A very eccentric story of the sea I read again and again is R. A. Lafferty’s ‘The Devil is Dead’:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1880448955/102-0828244-4797752?v=glance

Speaking of Phillip Pullman, there’s a bit of controversy about a film adaptation – you can read about it here:

http://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/002969.html

and here:

http://dox.media2.org/barista/archives/001445.html