Catherine Murphy chooses twelve books of Christmas for those warm and cosy evenings over the festive season…
All things merry and bright
by Catherine Murphy
It’s that time of year again and if you’re not really a tinsel kind of a person, if the thought of too much glitter turns your stomach or if you never touch a mince pie until Christmas Eve, you might want to look away now… maybe do something else… Sudoku is nice?
For everyone else, please picture this – a library filled with squishy chairs and perfect sofas, stockings pinned beside the open fire and fairy lights draped along the shelves, soft rugs on the floor, maybe a sleeping cat, tinsel everywhere – hundreds of glittering Christmas decorations, paper chains and popcorn twizzles – and all your favourite hardbacks and paperbacks lined up for the taking…
Settle in to your chair of choice, and let us begin the Twelve Books Of Christmas:
1. Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham
Unlike Grisham’s usual style of legal thrillers, Skipping Christmas is an easy, fun read. The book behind the big Hollywood movie, Christmas With The Kranks, the story follows a couple who decide to skip the entire festive season for once, and head away on holiday instead. No gifts, no garlands, no Christmas jumpers…
In real life this is a perfectly normal thing to do of course, but we’re not in real life, we’re in a Glittering Rich American Christmas, and whilst Grisham isn’t introducing murder in this tale, he’s got all the tension and fast paced plotting for which he’s known and loved, tied up in a shiny red bow and served with a massive dollop of predictable Happy-Ever-After.
Taking a step back in time…
2. The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper
A story for children of all ages, as the saying goes. Years before a certain boy wizard found out about his powers on his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton finds his own powers on his eleventh birthday. Cooper weaves together fantasy, magic, family, snow, and old, old tales. All the charms of a perfect Christmas tucked up in quite a dark tale but spun with so much love. Please don’t judge this book by its awful Hollywood movie – the original is festive food for the soul.
The apple logs are crackling on the open fire, the mulled wine is warming – where else to go, but murder…?
3. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie
In Christie’s own words, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is ‘a good violent murder with lots of blood.’
Simeon Lee is an elderly man and an absolute arse. Christmas is coming and he summons his entire family to his rambling old mansion to yell at them and be generally horrible, and – naturally – he gets murdered. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer chap.
As with many of Christie’s books, we’re reading about terrible people doing terrible things to other terrible people, and then in steps Poirot. There’s no one more suitable to pick through this carcass of family. Diamonds and death…
And talking of death…
4. Christmas is Murder, by Val McDermid
Two short stories published together in one e-book for a perfect winter’s evening curled up on the sofa reading about killings. Where there’s McDermid there’s murder, and these tales are just as twisty and crime-ridden as her series and standalone books and a good introduction.
Forgive me if I drop the tinsel wand for a second because the next choice is truly beautiful, and the message is important…
5. Amazing Peace, by Maya Angelou
A poem, not much more than sixty lines, but published in book form. Angelou’s words have a way of getting right to the heart of a point and of staying with the reader.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
One to read quietly, and the little book version is a great gift.
6. The Christmas Bookshop, by Jenny Colgan
Only recently published, this is a treat for fans of uplifting, heart-warming novels. It’s a sweet and also really quite emotional read. Colgan’s characters are strongly written, well-rounded and believable, even the bit-parts. For those who like their romance without too much tension it’s a real joy. Bookshops are, of course, the most wonderful places in the world.
7. Bridget Jones, by Helen Fielding
Not-very-loosely based on Pride and Prejudice, Bridget is even more ‘Bridget’ in print. Firmly set in her time with a cigarette in one hand and a dating disaster in the other, she’s charmingly awkward. Bring on the Christmas jumpers…
Talking of classic books turned into movies…
8. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
I read through this story with one eye to the brilliant language, the place setting and the terrible, bleak look at humanity, and the other to how much I loath its author.
An appalling human being, Dickens wrote a number of books that are now hated by teenagers every year as they suffer the glums of studying his sentences, but behind that – underneath his horrific awfulness – this tale really does stand the test of time. If you can’t stand to read it, throw the book on the fire (I know, I know…) and watch the Muppets Christmas Carol instead. For once, the movie is better than the book.
As if to wash out the reading mind…
9. Christmas Days: 12 stories and 12 feasts for 12 days, by Jeanette Winterson
Full disclosure, I would read anything Winterson published, but this is GORGEOUS. The illustrations are amazing. The book is a mixture of short stories, recipes, festive essays, children’s stories, memories, and folk style tales, and yet they read as one. Written beautifully and really festive.
10. Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas, by Adam Kay
The younger brother to the smash book hit This Is Going To Hurt, Kay returns to tales from his junior doctor days, writing about the funny things that happen in hospitals and also, cleverly sandwiched in between the humour, the not-so-funny, heart breaking things that happen too.
A fairly short volume easily digestible, unlike some of the items mentioned in the stories…
11. Wolfsbane and Mistletoe by Charlaine Harris and lots and lots of other authors – including Patricia Briggs.
If you prefer your festive reading with long, pointy teeth and a dash of romantic suspense, then this collection of werewolf stories will warm your blood. Gently supernatural, it’s probably one for fans of the well-known characters from this genre, with an introduction to some other authors scattered between the genre favourites, and for anyone who enjoys the Mercy Thompson books by Briggs, there’s a little story about David Christiansen.
To save the best for last…
12. Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett
The Hogfather – kind of a scary Santa – has gone missing and Death is doing his best to keep things together, along with all the usual Discworld characters.
Susan is brilliant. Death is hilarious. Pratchett is a genius.
Susan had never hung up a stocking . She’d never put a tooth under her pillow in the serious expectation that a dentally inclined fairy would turn up. It wasn’t that her parents didn’t believe in such things. They didn’t need to believe in them. They know they existed. They just wished they didn’t.
Light, funny, and really, really well written, Pratchett immerses the reader in a magical world where wizards and witches and all kinds of people live side-by-side, and often in chaos. For sheer magical festive goodness, the Hogfather delivers, absolutely.
So, let’s throw another log onto the imaginary library fire. I’m pretty sure there’s a copy of Jane Eyre around somewhere to help the flames along (yeah, yeah, I know…).