Looking for last-minute Christmas gifts? Or Christmas reading for those moments when you just need time away from family? Maybe you’ll be lucky and get book tokens in your stocking?
I’m recommending three books for Christmas reading. All very different! All brilliant! What they have in common is exquisite storytelling. (And none of them are about Christmas!)
A historical whodunnit for Christmas
If you’ve read this blog before you may know I’m interested in Aphra Behn. So on one of my many google adventures I came across this delightful online 17th century adventure. And that’s how I discovered Invitation to a Funeral by former armed guard and stand-up comedienne, Molly Brown.
I love this website – the 1990s styling and the options of what to do, complete with animated arrows. And because I’d recently read Janet Todd’s book, I knew the characters – or rather the historical figures.
That website stole an hour of my life, so I had to buy the book which is perfect if you’re looking for a light read over Christmas.
Published in 1996, this reads like proper airport whodunnit fiction but comfortably set in the 1670s. Sometimes historical fiction can feel like a dressing up game – lots of skirts rustling and people striding about shouting “Fie! What say you?” But not this one.
The premise is that Aphra Behn and the Earl of Rochester make a bet. Nell Gwyn gets involved and then there’s a weird funeral. I won’t give it all away but it was very entertaining.
Where is Molly Brown now? I don’t know. But you can read more about her on Fantastic Fiction where you’ll see more books you can buy for Christmas.
Literary historical fiction books for Christmas
I read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River years ago and loved it. It recently came up in conversation so I picked it off the shelf and re-read it.
A brilliant premise and (pardon the pun) utterly transporting!
It’s the story of a family of Georgian Londoners who end up in Botany Bay. You feel you’re there – wherever the characters are, whether that’s barefoot on the filthy cobbles of Georgian London, on the boat, blinded by sunlight as you disembark in Australia, and all the way to the swamps and mangroves.
What’s first a niggling feeling of unease builds into extreme tension. I didn’t even blink as I got towards the end, never mind put the book down. A total work of art and just as good the second time round.
Short stories for Christmas
Finally, a collection of short stories.
I first came across this author in an issue of The London Magazine, when I read A Lone Astronaut Watches the World End. It was so good I had to sit down, take a deep breath and read it again.
So, of course I looked her up and bought her award winning collection. And as I did, I thought, yes, why should titles always be short and snappy?
An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk According To One Who Saw It brilliantly belies the self-delusion of the narrator in the title story.
The 12 stories in this collection are mostly written in the first-person and almost all anecdotal in style. As a collection, the stories vibrate from past to present and future and snap back again.
What they share is a sense of preoccupation, characters in need of forgiveness who don’t always find absolution. Some convince themselves they had it, some are painfully aware that matters are unresolved. There’s a sense of life being out of the characters’ control as they delude themselves, compromise or “learn to live alone in fear”.
Even the “wandering physician, alchemist, heretic and on occasion, mercenary”, “Theophrastus is at a loss”.
…which I hope you aren’t now that I’ve suggested some good holiday reading.