So Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and I have far too much wrapping, decorating and general sorting left to do. The heady optimism of having everything done soon after the switching on of the Christmas lights a few weeks ago has vanished thanks to general busy-ness and I’m at the stage I normally am every year. As such, I haven’t written an article this week, but have dived into my bookshelves (which hurt) to produce a list of 12 gifts for rather specific people in your life. Today, the first 6 books. Consider it a public service; I’ve not run out of ideas this week at all, trust me.
For the bairn – Peepo! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
A book with holes for kids (and bigger kids) to look through and spot the next section of the protagonist baby’s day. It’s really sweet, and set in the 1940s so there’s plenty of period items to spot too. The new edition has been published in board, so young ones can really get their teeth into the story.
For the aficionado of a good ghost story – Mouth Open Story Jump Out, by Grace Hallworth
This collection of traditional ghost stories from the Caribbean features various creatures that had never occurred to my imagination but proceeded to haunt it once they’d been cordially introduced. This includes faceless children with backwards feet who cause mischief, and the Loup Garou who is a bit like a werewolf. The devil himself makes a couple of appearances, up to tricks he’s also known to have indulged in in Europe. He doesn’t change.
For the lover of old-school adventure – Amateur Adventure, by Gandar Dower
One of the pink paperbacks published by Penguin, this is the real-life story of the author’s flight to India, with a companion, in 1932. Why did he fly to India? Because he fancied it. That’s all. And why not? Gandar Dower is a fantastic narrator, describing beautiful, romantic landscapes and the stages of his adventure in a rather self-deprecating tone. His whole life seems to have been run in accordance with the derring-do attitude of the 1920s and 30s in the upper eschlons of British society. He wrote books on other travels in Africa, became a leading tennis player and introduced Cheetah Racing to England (ultimately unsuccessful because the cheetahs weren’t competitive enough). As a war correspondent in 1940s Madagascar, he once had to leap from a vessel under fire, carrying with him his bowler hat, typewriter and umbrella.
In short, he’s a total 1930s dude, and he’s on my list of people I want to invite to a fictional dinner party.
For that person who likes to cook but uses all the bloody dishes and doesn’t wash up – Good Food: One-Pot Dishes
Yes, this is me. This book is so useful: loads of tasty dishes including soups, mains, desserts and salads (never read that section) and the cooking only uses one pan. So that’s less washing up for your dad to do. Sweet.
For the sci-fi enthusiast who also likes a Christmas tale – The Heavenly Host, by Isaac Asimov
This is the short story of a lad, Jonathan, who lands with his parents on a new colony planet just before Christmas. The planet is already populated by native beings called “Wheels”, who the settlers want to destroy. When Jonathan meets a little Wheel and finds him quite friendly and not at all dangerous, he needs to find a way to convince the other humans not to kill all the Wheels. It’s not an unusual plot device for a children’s story, but in Asimov’s universe it takes on new qualities as narration swaps between the human (or “sound-thing”) and Wheel, leading to an uplifting resolution that takes the Christmas message of peace and goodwill to a different planet. This, in my opinion, is also Asimov perfectly showing his skill as a storyteller as he does not allow himself to become bogged down in the exposition that threatens to overwhelm some of his longer and more complex works (I was honestly prepared to set fire to his Foundation and Earth. I love science, but there’s a limit to how much I can take on board at one time).
For the person who thinks Bond isn’t sexy enough, and Flashman’s too nice – The Devil in Amber, by Mark Gatiss
This is the sequel to The Vesuvius Club, but in my opinion is the better one. Lucifer Box – “portraitist, dandy and terribly good secret agent” – becomes entangled in the strange activities of a new Fascist group in 1920s New York, their leader’s plan for world domination and the theft of a medieval manuscript believed to possess the power to summon the devil. (Him again. He gets around.) Gatiss clearly enjoyed himself writing this, and it shows in the vitality of his prose and wicked humour running through. This in no way diminishes the moments of real horror that take you by surprise, as you’ve been absorbed by the chatty storytelling style that is perfect for the dastardly protagonist, who could almost be sitting next to you and regaling you with tales over dinner (at the Ritz, of course).
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