Some Recommended Christmas Reading Part 1
You know you’ll have a bit of spare time to yourself in the coming weeks, and it might be a good time to catch up on a book or two. Here are a few I can wholeheartedly recommend. Where do you start, though? So I’ve picked few I’ve just happened to read or reread…
Crooked Heart Lissa Evans
It’s hard to write amusing fiction about the war; you always start to think of ‘Dad’s Army’. Evans tells the story of a smart evacuee and the woman who exploits him, until we can’t tell who is exploiting whom. In her previous novel, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’ she penned a tale of artistes attempting a morale-boosting low-budget British film in 1941. There are never easy caricatures with Evans, and everyone gets a chance to shine. These are the most enjoyable novels about home-front life I’ve read.
King Dido Alexander Baron
Hackney-raised Baron was born toward the end of one world war and served in another. His epic novel of Edwardian Jewish gangs, ‘King Dido’, is a tale that outlines, with infinite care, the link between poverty and crime. Baron is the master of likeable anti-heroes, and the final pages are utterly heartbreaking, and carry tragic resonance. ‘King Dido’ is back in print and one of the greatest, least read novels about London ever written.
The Unfortunate Captain Despard Mike Jay
Jay’s non-fiction books illuminate forgotten corners of British history in beautifully clear prose, and he somehow manages to make each of his books read like a thriller. Here the scene is the war on terror, 1798. Captain Despard fought beside Nelson, married a black woman, freed the slaves of Belize and was the last man to be hanged, drawn and quartered, in a climax that shows why the British revolution never happened. It’s superbly erudite and often jaw-dropping proof that fact is stranger than fiction. His new illustrated history of Bedlam, This Way Madness Lies: The Asylum and Beyond, is superb and much better than the Wellcome exhibition.
Alone In Berlin Hans Fallada
When life gets bad, at what point do you decide to strike back? A middle-aged Berlin couple go along with Hitler’s outrages until they decide to take affirmative action. Without even discussing the matter with each other they start writing inflammatory postcards and leaving them around the city, but the police soon give chase. A true story that feels like breathless fiction. It’s been republished and is now a movie with Emma Thompson.
Our Mutual Friend Charles Dickens
My obvious choice for Dickens would be ‘Bleak House’ but this is an astoundingly rich novel about a city founded, quite literally, on dirt and corruption. It starts with a suspicious death on the Thames and rattles through the whole of London society with strong women in the lead roles, but what wrongfooted me most was the comedy. I defy you not to laugh at the ghastly dinner party held for the Veneerings, which proves that when it comes to greed very little has changed in the world.
A High Wind In Jamaica Richard Hughes
Some British children living in Jamaica survive a hurricane and are sent back to England, but are captured by pirates. It’s an adventure about children, but certainly not aimed at them. Because in a turnabout, it’s the pirates who have to worry…what starts as merely masterful storytelling becomes something dreamlike and haunting; it’s not a book you easily forget.
The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun Sébastien Japrisot
Was there ever a better title to sum up the world of the noir thriller? The narrative delivers all the key genre elements in a plot of audacious simplicity. A beautiful young woman impulsively drives off in her boss’s white Thunderbird, heading for the South of France, but locals react as if she had made the same journey the night before. Then she finds a dead body in the boot…this has a brilliant wrong-footing twist that plays fair and is even alluded to in the title!
It’s impossible to recommend this without the first volume, ‘Titus Groan’, a staggering achievement that some feel claustrophobic and exhausting – but give it a chance; it’s rewarding and may stay with you forever, as it has me. A vast crumbling castle built on arcane rituals, an upstart kitchen boy determined to bring it down, a beautiful but vulnerable girl, and a feat of imagination rarely, if ever, equalled. My father, who never countenanced such books, shocked us all by adoring it.
The Crystal World JG Ballard
Ballard wrote four early novels in which our planet is menaced, and they proved prescient; climate change, heat and floods featured 40 years before they happened, but this is a change of pace. The African jungle starts to crystallize, trees encrusting with huge jewels, crocodiles in glittering skins waddling downriver. The world may be doomed, but in an unexpectedly beautiful way. (the Crystal World illustration is by Leanne Coleman)