A book is not just for Christmas: 9 Christmas gift ideas for book lovers

Lots of people have already finished their Christmas shopping and to them I say ‘Congratulations!’ I very much wish I was done, but I’m not quite.

For anyone who might still be looking for some inspiration, I thought I’d share a few ideas for ‘Things to buy for book lovers who already own and buy a lot of books, making it tricky to buy for them without spending ages checking their shelves first’.

Persephone books – always a good option for gifting because they are just so beautiful. Persephone also do box sets and a book-a-month subscription service.

If you’re interested in subscription services, the gold standard (priced accordingly) is Heywood Hill’s A year in books. I would LOVE to try this one day; I’m currently living vicariously through Thomas at Hogglestock’s subscription. There are cheaper options out there, of course. Not on the High Street offer a couple of options and if you really know your giftee, you could always try doing your own!

For the book lover who regularly loans out their favourites, how about a personal library kit?

Someone once bought the book map for me and it is hands down one of my favourite things hanging on my wall. Good for hours of poring over!

If your giftee happens to like both books and Christmas, how about a book about Christmas? I’ve read Judith Flanders’ The Making of Home and can recommend her engaging style and eye for an interesting detail.

If you want to risk buying a book, go for a current one. How about the Waterstones’ Book of the Year? (I have seen SO much buzz about this and am desperate to read it. It’d be lovely to own the beautiful hardback version.)

Another recent book getting a wonderful write-up (and one that is so beautiful it is automatically elevated to ‘GIFT’) is Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris’ enormous The Lost Words

How about giving someone the chance to meet one of their bookish idols? Both the Hay Festival and the Cheltenham Literary Festival offer gift vouchers for their events. There are bound to be others who do a similar thing.

And if you’ve saved every penny you found down the back of the sofa since the reign of Queen Victoria, you could perhaps swing for this? My own personal, well-a-girl-can-dream item.

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Britta Rostlund – Waiting for Monsieur Bellivier

What would you do?

You’re a journalist, idling in a Parisian cafe, when a stranger asks you if you’re waiting for Monsieur Bellivier. Only the man doesn’t appear to be Monsieur Bellivier himself. And he doesn’t seem to know who he’s looking for.

Fortunately for the sake of the story, Helena Folasadu says that she is. And from there, she’s drawn into a mysterious second job that involves sitting in an enormous empty office at the top of a busy commercial block, forwarding on inexplicable emails containing random combinations of letters and numbers.

Meanwhile, in another district of the city, Mancebo, a Tunisian shopkeeper finds his predictable routine-driven life turned slowly upside down when the woman across the street – the enigmatic Madame Cat – convinces him to moonlight as a private detective in order to find out whether her novel-writing husband is having an affair.

Britta Rostlund’s twisting, turning tale, moves back and forth between Helena and Mancebo’s stories until they inevitably overlap at the end. There are plenty of hooks and unexplained events to keep you turning the pages, but as the stories unfold, the revelations about Mancebo and Helena’s own lives are just as absorbing. Their involvement in the clandestine affairs of others has the effect of sharpening focus on their own day-to-day concerns. They become at once more observant, more derailed and more willing to push at the boundaries of the routines into which they have settled.

Rostlund’s narrative, with its topical mood of paranoia, also reminds the reader at intervals that the story is set in a post-9/11 Paris. Here suspicion is the natural order and fear is a constant undercurrent. In this sense, Mancebo and Helena mirror society at large in that almost everything they do is overlaid with anxiety and all unexplained events are suspicious. It’s an interesting way of commenting on shifts in our collective consciousness that are at risk of becoming embedded in the status quo.

However, there’s a fair bit of humour and I enjoyed the window Rostlund opened on parts of Paris that aren’t so well represented in fiction.

It’s also a story that reminds you how easy it is to see only the littlest bit of the world around you, or to become so overtaken by routine that it subsumes the detail of life.

I really enjoyed the premise of this book and once the preliminary lines had been cast I was well and truly hooked. The characterisation – of Mancebo and his family in particular; Helena could perhaps have done with a little more flesh on her bones – was strong and the dual narratives meant that you were never more than a few pages away from a cliffhanger. If I had one criticism, it was perhaps that the ending didn’t come with the ‘oomph’ that I was expecting. But I wonder if that says more about the strength of the build-up. I think this is perhaps one of those stories where the majority of the pleasure is in the anticipation, the puzzling over which of a dozen intriguing denouements you could possibly be escalating towards. I’d certainly recommend it at any rate.

In which I am sucked in by covers

I’ve long known about my type(s) when it comes to men (hello unwashed-looking, bearded musicians and toned but not beefcakey men with celtic colouring, i.e. dark hair and lighter eyes). But I’m also starting to see a pattern in the books I pick based on ‘looks’ alone.

A recent trip to the library produced these entirely impulsive picks:

Look how pretty they are.

That eye peeking through the keyhole on The Silent Companions belongs to an entire lady lurking menacingly in the end papers. And she is menacing, make no mistake. I’m about 50 pages from finishing it and it’s definitely one of those late night reads where you must go to the toilet before you start reading or you’ll be trapped in bed by the thought of the thing that will grab your ankles if you get out again. I’ll come back to it when it’s done….

But seeing these two lined up next to my bed made me painfully aware how susceptible I am to a certain type of cover. Let’s look in more detail at other books I’ve gathered after I was suckered by a cover.

Four of these books are wonderful, and the other two (The Wonder, The Snow Child) may well also be wonderful and I’ll find out once I’ve read them.

But let’s break it down, shall we?

Clearly, if you want to sell me a book, there are certain key elements you need to include on the cover. Silhouetted figures. That one was a surprise. Bonus points if they’re reading a book. Some kind of leafy vine. Check. A smattering of fauna. Metallic accents. Don’t introduce too many colours. If in doubt, go with blue.

And wow. I’ve just noticed this. Start the title with ‘The…’. Ha.

Thing is, there are just a bazillion beautiful, clever covers out there, and so many great books that are also works of art. This just seems to be my particular hook when I’m browsing with intent.

Anyone else with a type?!

Nonfiction November – New to my TBR

What a fun month nonfiction November is in the blogosphere!

I seem to read more and more nonfiction these days and it’s comforting (and somewhat overwhelming at times!) to know that I will never run out of inspiration. Work got in the way of me actively contributing to week 1 (Your year in nonfiction hosted by Julz Reads), week 2 (nonfiction and fiction book pairings hosted by Sarah’s Book Shelves), week 3 (Be the expert/Ask the expert/Become the expert, hosted by Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness) and week 4 (nonfiction favourites hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey).

But this final week’s nonfiction topic is ‘New to my TBR’ and it’s being hosted by Lori over at Emerald City Book Review. As I’ve been following along with as many nonfiction posts as possible, I’ve made quite a few additions to the TBR (although in note form, not book form as Christmas is blimmin’ expensive and books for me are not on the ‘to buy’ list right now).

I decided to limit my list to ten for brevity’s sake. Be grateful – there were MANY more I could have included…

  1. Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins (recommended by Howling Frog Books). WHY? Because it’s a book about books, and in particular about one family’s experience of living in the mecca of book lovers, Hay-on-Wye.
  2. The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore (recommended by Angela at Musings of a Literary WandererWHY? Because it tells the story of the forgotten women who worked in America’s radium-dial factories, how these so called ‘shining women’ began to fall mysteriously ill, and how their courage and tenacity in the face of impossible circumstances led to a change in regulations, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
  3. Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence (recommended by Sarah at Sarah’s Book ShelvesWHY? Because who wouldn’t want to know what a witty librarian with more than a decade of front-line experience thinks about the books in her life?
  4. Moby Duck: The true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea by Donovan Hohn (recommended by Heather at Based on a True StoryWHY? Because if, like me, you’ve been watching the latest series of BBC1’s incredible Blue Planet and you only just found out about the 28,800 plastic ducks lost at sea, then this book couldn’t have popped up at a better time.
  5. Playing Dead: A journey through the world of death fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood (recommended by Katie at Doing DeweyWHY? Because every so often there’ll be a story on the news about someone who faked their own death (remember that canoe guy? and did you know Olivia Newton-John’s ex-partner did it??) and I will find myself going over and over in my head the whys, wherefores and practicalities of such a immense thing.
  6. Putting the Supernatural in its Place: Folklore, the Hypermodern and the Ethereal by Jeannie Banks Thomas (recommended by Katherine at The Writerly ReaderWHY? Because I have a HUGE obsession with folklore and mythology, which is almost always written about historically. So a book that attempted to look at how folkloric traditions sit in the contemporary world and continue to proliferate really caught my attention.
  7. The Family Gene by Joselin Linder (recommended by Kim at Sophisticated DorkinessWHY? Because Kim’s write-up really hooked me, and also because this sounded like the perfect blend of science, memoir and thought-provoking ideas.
  8. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder by Richard Louv (recommended by Too FondWHY? Because every so often a book comes along that seems to have been written exactly to address a particular issue you’ve been struggling internally with (in this case, how to make sure that my daughter grows up with a passion for nature and not an unhealthy obsession with screens).
  9. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Science from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge (recommended by books are my favourite and bestWHY? Because I love everything that Oliver Sacks has ever written and he’s written about a lot of cases where the brain develops stunning new capabilities after traumatic injury. I’d love to read more about that. (Tip: read Sacks’ Musicophilia if you haven’t already)
  10. Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek and T J Mitchell (recommended by Always DoingWHY? Because who doesn’t like peeping behind the scenes of a job that fascinates but you would never, ever, under any circumstances, want to (or be able to) do?

And finally a book that DID make it into my TBR book jar, because I joined the nonfiction November book swap… My lovely swap partner sent me 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building which takes a peek inside New York’s best known and most lusted after real estate, and the people who’ve lived there over the years. I have wanted to read this for AGES!

Finally, you might be interested to know that David Lodge suggested in one of the essays in Lives in Writing that people read more nonfiction as they age. I think it’s probably true for me – a look back through my list of books read suggests I read a lot more nonfiction than I used to. But fiction probably still edges it by a tiny margin.

What do you think? Has anyone else noticed a bias towards nonfiction creeping in with advancing years?!

T H White – The Sword in the Stone

I had originally planned to read the entirety of T H White’s The Once and Future King for Lory’s Witch Week over at The Emerald City Book Review.

Then, life.

Then I thought, well, I could just read Book 1, The Sword in the Stone, because I’d wanted to read it for the longest time.

Then an unexpected thing. I didn’t like it.

In fact, I got downright stalled over it and didn’t really pick up anything else while I skirted round the edges of not quite reading TSITS and not quite accepting that I wasn’t having the sort of fun reading it that I’d imagined having.

So I missed Witch Week altogether (apart from enjoying reading all the posts). And I finally finished TSITS about 10 days ago and have just about come to terms with my feelings so that I can write about them.

I’m not sure the story itself needs much introduction. TSITS is the first in a tetralogy of books by White covering the legend of King Arthur. It deals with Arthur’s boyhood, where he comes under the tutelage of the magician, Merlin, who sets out to educate him for the task that lies ahead. The book ends as Arthur pulls the legendary sword from the stone and his true destiny is revealed to those around him. Most people also know about the episodes in which Merlin turns boy-Arthur (the Wart) into various animals, birds and insects to help teach him the ways and wiles of the world. I didn’t know until I started looking into it that there are various manuscript versions of TSITS (I think, the British original, an American version, and the version that appears in The Once and Future King – my version). To be honest, I’m still a little hazy on those various versions and the differences between them. My main take-away is the fact that my version is missing Merlin’s encounter with the witch Madame Mim, and I’m fairly certain is the poorer for that.

There are things about the book that I liked very much. Firstly, it’s one ginormous anachronism, from the undetermined period in which it’s set, to the wry authorial voice who pilots in from the present day every so often and puts events and people in their place, so to speak. There’s humour and there’s a lot of cleverness. I loved the irascible Merlin, and White’s notion that Merlin is somehow living his life backwards and thus is privy to knowledge of all manner of future events while often being somewhat confused as to where and when he is. White is also excellent at scene-setting descriptive passages; many are quite beautiful and all are clever in the way they wrestle with perspectives. Take this for example:

“…in the Old England there was a greater marvel still. The weather behaved itself. In the spring, the little flowers came out obediently in the meads, and the dew sparkled, and the birds sang. In the summer it was beautifully hot for no less than four months, and, if it did rain just enough for agricultural purposes, they managed to arrange it so that it rained while you were in bed. In the autumn the leaves flamed and rattled before the west winds, tempering their sad adieu with glory. And in the winter, […] the snow lay as it ought to lie […] like thick icing on a very good cake […] on the boughs of the forest trees in rounded lumps, even better than apple-blossom, and occasionally slid off the roofs of the village when it saw the chance of falling on some amusing character and giving pleasure to all.”

Where it fell apart for me was with the ‘action’ of the book. I’m afraid that when it came to the big set pieces of the narrative – Wart’s transformations, the jousting, the hunt, Robin Wood’s adventures – I was just bored to tears. In fact, these bits were so difficult to read that I lapsed into that absent-minded skim reading where you plough through pages at a time before realising you were mostly thinking about some knotty work problem and could no more remember what you just read than you could recall what you had for dinner three weeks last Tuesday. I forced myself to read certain sections (the bit when Wart was transformed into an ant was a particular low point) and then was left wondering why.

So all in all, a mixed bag. It’s strange having that reaction to a book you’ve long anticipated; I feel sort of let down but also guilty at the same time. And perhaps a little like I missed something fundamental that everyone else got.

One interesting thing to ponder is how much I might have been affected by the influence of the Disney cartoon version, which I watched endlessly as a child and loved. It’s undeniably cutesy in parts, of course, and I could never quite understand why they set Madame Mim up as the villain when she was clearly the best character in it, but I loved it nonetheless. Disney leaves out many of the bits in the book that left me a little cold (oh the ants…), but of course it’s also missing the glorious anachronisms.

Film versions of books can be a mixed bag. In this case, I’m definitely ‘Team Film’ (as I was with Forrest Gump as I recall). In fact one of the only instances where I just can’t pick a winner is The Princess Bride, which has never let me down in any of its incarnations. But I digress.

Is there anyone else out there who didn’t love TSITS? Should I have read the British original version?

If you have a bit more reading time:

Paul Magrs – Exchange

A quick review today for a quick read (or in my case, a re-read). Which isn’t to dismiss it at all, because this is a lovely book and a perfect one for voracious readers.

After the death of his parents, 16-year-old Simon packs up his things, including a few boxes of books, and moves in with his grandparents. His grandmother, Winnie, shares his passionate love of reading and the two embark on a series of excursions around the local charity shops to bolster their impressive collections of books. Until they discover The Great Big Book Exchange, a bookshop unlike any other.

Membership of The Great Big Book Exchange comes with a host of other unexpected consequences, including Simon’s burgeoning relationship with the store’s gothic assistant, Kelly, a link to Winnie’s childhood and the incendiary breakdown of Simon’s grandfather who is slowly losing his mind at sharing his home with both the readers and their books.

This is such a warm, well-characterised story with a lot to say about the act of reading, why we do it and when we need to be wary about the lines we draw between life and books.

Judith Kerr – When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

It’s easy to forget that there must have been a time when I didn’t know about the holocaust, about other similar horrors or the sheer breathtaking scope of the potential for man’s inhumanity. I don’t remember when I heard about it for the first time or what I thought when I did. I can only imagine it’s a little similar to how I feel about it now because it isn’t really an idea you get used to or one that softens with time.

It makes me sad that one day my daughter will have to hear about it for the first time and a part of her world view will be permanently shadowed. But when in doubt about tackling the harder things in life, there is always a book to help you along the way.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, published in 1971, was written by Judith Kerr to help explain the events of her own life to her children. It tells the story of nine-year-old Anna, who journeys with her parents and her brother Max from Germany, through Switzerland, to France and eventually on to England. Forced into a new life as refugees by the rise of the Nazi party, Anna’s family must contend with poverty, isolation and a growing awareness of what is happening back home to the friends and family who decided to stay. Judith Kerr’s own father, Alfred, was a theatre critic who openly criticised the Nazis and whose books were publicly burned after the family’s flight. Kerr’s family reached England in 1936, and she has lived there since, becoming an OBE in 2012.

I was surprised by the book in a number of ways; it has an unexpected sense of humour and masterful subtlety. It also resonates with a powerful honesty that doesn’t seek to apologise or revise any of Kerr’s own childlike views or perceptions about what happened to her. So on the one hand you have this lovely depiction of a child’s-eye view of the ‘adventure’ of creating a new life. And on the other hand you see glimpses of what the reality must have been for her parents and how hard they both worked to create the illusion of normality for Anna and Max. Kerr herself said that the book was a chance to ‘remember [her] parents, and for them to be remembered.’

Anna’s own innocent resilience also acts as a powerful antidote to the crimes of the Nazis; a reminder that no one is born into evil. Whether or not Kerr intended her to be, I think she becomes a very effective metaphor for the hope that we all share that the next generation might just find a way to pick up the pieces.

In an interview, Kerr said ‘When you have small children, you think you know what you think about things. But you don’t.’ This rang so true for me reading the book and realising that I had a new filter through which all my thoughts were passing and emerging subtly altered. But I don’t think you need to be a parent to take something powerful from Kerr’s story. Approaching a known event from the perspective of a child has a powerfully transformative effect on something that we think we know well. I love being forced to come at something from a new angle and always come away feeling like my ideas have been refreshed in the process.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is the first in a trilogy that includes Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away and I’d love to read both.

If you have a bit more reading time: