A Bookish Christmas Gift Guide

Keir Hind | 02 Dec 2009

Stuck for something to buy a friend for Christmas? Info-packed, entertaining, and easy to get hold of, you can hardly go wrong with a book. Here are some possible choices, all fresh and on the shelves of your local vendor now!

For… anyone with the slightest interest in Scottish Culture

A biography doesn’t need a fascinating subject to be a great book – but it’s a good help. Hamish Henderson: A biography has one, and it’s a great book too. Volume One, published in 2007, met with critical acclaim, and Volume Two is a continuation of this great work. Hamish Henderson attended an English public school, then went on to Cambridge University, and then fought in Italy in World War 2, where he personally accepted the Italian surrender. Yet somehow he emerged from these experiences as a socialist and a pacifist. After an early success as a poet with his award-winning cycle Elegies For The Dead In Cyrenaica, he turned to the folk tradition, where he not only wrote songs such as The Freedom Come All-Ye and The John MacLean March, but also helped set up The School For Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. The folk revival he helped spur was massively important to Scottish Culture, and the Edinburgh Peoples Festival he set up, as an alternative to the Festival proper, was similarly important as the forerunner of the Fringe. He worked tirelessly to improve Scottish Culture until his death in 2002, and this biography does him justice. [Keir Hind]

Both volumes out now, published by Birlinn. Cover price £14.99 (v1) and £25 (v2)

For… film buffs or artists

Before his unusual choice to quit acting and direct a film about rugby (seriously, it’s called Invictus – look it up), Clint Eastwood made a fair number of films. Clint Eastwood: Icon is a coffee table book collecting the poster art for his films (including those he directed, whether he’s in them or not) from the 60s to his last screen role in Gran Torino. There’s a short introduction by collector David Frangioni about the nature of his collecting habits, which is amiable enough, and a longer one by Thomas Schatz about Eastwood’s career, but the real draw is the posters themselves. Leafing through them is mesmerising, as the art changes from gritty comic book styles in the sixties to a harder edged, and often gun toting, look in the seventies, then on to the glossy, hardware obsessed, eighties, a slicker but still glossy look in the nineties, and then this last decade, where a photographic look dominates. They’re fine as they are, but the real highlights of this collection are to be found in the sixties work, particularly the image-defining posters for the Dollars trilogy which look like they were bleached in the (Spanish) desert sun. [David Agnew]

Out now, published by Titan Books. Cover price £29.99.

For… nostalgists

Whenever they devised a new animated series writer Oliver Postgate and artist Peter Firmin had just three guiding principles: that they would like making it, that children would like watching it and that the BBC or ITV would like buying it! Remarkably enough, this focus-group-free way of working gave us a host of now fondly remembered children’s programmes, ranging from Ivor the Engine and Pogles’ Wood to The Clangers and Bagpuss. Yet, despite arguably creating modern children’s classics, little about the man himself was known until the original publication of his memoirs almost a decade ago. Now reprinted in light of Postgate’s death earlier this year, fans looking for in-depth ‘behind the scenes’ gossip will still be disappointed, but can luxuriate in the enchanting innocence and sense of wonder that characterised Postgate’s vivid stories (even the ones made in black and white). Guaranteed, you’ll end this delightfully written tome with a deeper understanding of the inventive and independent mind behind those childhood classics. As Postgate says at the start; this isn’t a story, it’s a life. It just happens to be a life that left behind an enchanting, and ultimately timeless, legacy for which we all should be grateful. [Paul F Cockburn]

Out now, published by Canongate. Cover price £16.99

For… comic strip nostalgists

Opening the latest two volumes of the Complete Peanuts is a nerve-wracking experience. Can the comic live up to childhood memories and its own iconic status? Since Peanuts was published singly, reading four years' worth of a single comic can feel strange. This year's volumes see Peanuts reaching the end of its first decade, and engaging more with popular culture, such as with the famous parodic frame 'Happiness is a warm puppy'. The 1959 to '60 volume features the introduction of Charlie Brown's little sister Sally and the discovery that their father was a barber. The 1961 to '62 volume introduces the vain Frieda to the gang and starts to focus more upon Snoopy, including his brief foray into diving. Part of the charm of Peanuts is that it is an historical soap opera from a very different world to now. Each hardback volume contains an introduction from a famous fan, a complete index and covers designed by Seth. They make beautiful presents but a novice could find it all overwhelming. There’s one way to get around that – plunge in, and lose that novice status! These bound volumes lessen the damage from Peanuts' tacky paraphernalia, and they’ll surely become collector's items. [Caroline Walters]

Out now, published by Canongate. Cover price (both volumes) £15.

For… poets or historians

Henry Marsh may not be familiar to you, but his subject in The Guidman’s Daughter will be: Mary, Queen of Scots. Actually, this collection has a number of other poems in it, and ends with the sequence The Guidman’s Daughter. While the sequence of poems that give this collection its title is very impressive, there’s no reason to skip to them – Marsh’s work is consistently absorbing. The collection is broken up into 8 sections, and while some sections have obvious themes (section 2, for example, is a series of poems about paintings) others are more hidden. They’re unrhymed, but have a quiet authority about them. An example is Waiting For The Ferry, which ends with these evocative lines: “The wind is throwing its weight about. / It pauses to consider. / We study the dubious sky / and wonder at our own passage.” The highlight though, is the title sequence. The title comes from James V, who used to wander the country in disguise as the Guidman of Ballingeich. The poems trace the life of his ill-fated daughter, and they’re prefaced by a concise account of her life for clarity. It’s a fine collection, with unexpected depths to reward its readers. [Nat Smith]

Out now, published by Maclean Dubois. Cover price £10.

For… flat sharers

We Are the Friction is a rather delightful collection of short stories, somewhat reminiscent of a box of assorted chocolates in the way it seems to offer something for every taste (and, presumably, a few things that won’t appeal to anyone, at least at first). The premise is pairing up twelve writers with twelve illustrators and asking the former to write a story based on an illustration, and for the illustrators to make an illustration based on a story. As the latter is the more common mode of proceeding when it comes to illustration, it is the stories that are founded on illustrations that give the collection a unique selling point: it is not often one has this kind of access to a writer’s inspiration and it is intriguing to see what they have done of the illustrations they were given. Most stories are very short and the illustrations very well-done, which makes this a great book for miscellaneous browsing. Have it lying around the house to pick up now and then when there is nothing better to do and enjoy a story that takes no longer than seven minutes to read, with a picture or two to dwell on. [Kayleigh Bohan]

Out now, published by Sing Statistics. Cover price £15 – see www.singstatistics.co.uk/

For… flat sharers again!

The hunt for writers who make immediate impressions is frustrating, especially when each ‘potential’ turns into another lost gamble and one becomes brackish and disinclined to try anything new. But then, one nonchalantly (serendipitously?) picks up a book and perhaps because expectations don’t exist, or perhaps because hope is absent, or perhaps simply because the book is good, its prose holds your hand, or makes your throat constrict, or just that one line makes you smile randomly on the bus. Such is The Golden Hour II – a collection of short stories, poetry and music (20 track CD included), produced and published by Edinburgh’s Forest Cafe – which amongst its many other endeavours and initiatives, fosters the artistic teeth cutting ceremony of the Golden Hour (every Wednesday, 8 -11pm). The book features contributions from 36 artists who’ve featured at the Golden Hour, such scope ensuring that at least one piece of prose will resonate. Highlights include Spencer Thompson’s Pancake, am I a barstard? and Kona Macphee’s Fen Train whose lilting, old fashioned rhyme scheme belies it sharp edge. So, to those weary and wary book hunters, the reluctant gamblers and the open hearted, pick up TGHII, it’s a sure bet.

Out now, published by Forest Publications. Cover price £8 – see forpub.com/goldenhourbooktwo/

For… graphic novel fans

It’s not often you read a graphic novel written and drawn solely by a Scottish creator, but Chris Kent’s Medusa Is just that. It’s set in the present day, and it’s about a soldier in Iraq, Corporal Elliot Ford, who returns to Britain because his daughter has gone missing. From the short scenes at the start in Iraq, it’s clear that Kent’s art is pretty special – painted scenes with the occasional photograph thrown in as if to show how Ford is perceiving these scenes. But Ford has already lost his wife before shipping out, and the uncertain loss of his daughter puts additional strain on him. And as he becomes confused, Kent makes the narrative more confusing. This makes the story less straightforward than it could have been, and so it won’t be for everyone – Kent’s illustrations benefit enormously from this change though, showing confusion through Ford’s eyes. He’s doing this quite deliberately, but it may put off those looking for a simple revenge story. This isn’t that, and it’s better for it – it’ll repay several readings. If you’re a fan of graphic novels, but you’re looking for something different, this intriguing work might just be the ticket.

Out now, published by Graphite Fiction. Cover price £8.99.

For… fans of American crime

In a market awash with the adventures of world-weary detectives, C.J. Box's UK debut Three Weeks to Say Goodbye is grounded by a refreshingly normal cast of characters and a plot that doesn't let go until the final page. Box has been selling well in America for a while now, and has picked up a couple of awards too – it’s surprising he hasn’t been published in Britain until now. Jack and Melissa McGuane believe their problems are over when they adopt their daughter, Angelina, until the adoption agency calls: the biological father wants her back and happens to be the son of a well-connected judge. Jack and Melissa choose to fight to keep their daughter and find themselves attacked by those on both sides of the law. Unashamedly every parent's worst nightmare, Box wracks up the tension throughout to a denouement worth waiting for in this standalone thriller. With Corvus promising more from Box, already well established in the US, including a series due for release in 2011, get in now to be ahead of the crowd. And with the nights getting darker and colder, Three Weeks to Say Goodbye makes a perfect Christmas gift for any crime fan looking for a page-turner. [Daniel Gray]

Release date: Dec 1. Published by Corvus. Cover price £12.99.

For… fans of Dundonian crime!

In The Lost Sister, Russel D McLean conjures up another dark tale of Dundonian roguery for this season of good chill. In pursuit of a missing teenage girl, private investigator J McNee rummages through the murky depths of the city’s underworld. It is a place of high violence and low morals on the part of both criminals and police officers. Who knew Dundee could be so interesting? Flesh and blood embellish the story via intrigue as well as brutality; the missing girl’s mother is burdened by a weighty secret and her family have ties to local villain David Burns. This snappily written heart-thumper provides the Ebenezer Scrooge sense of creepiness that no fireside yuletide is complete without. Bringing the traditionally American private eye figure to Tayside is a fascinating and smart move by McLean. It’s no direct transplant though – McNee is a proper PI with his own way of doing things, and a Dundonian perspective. This is only McLean’s second novel, and he’s a young writer. The older crime writers should be looking over their shoulders at him and taking note. This will suit anyone with a Rebus-sized hole in his or her reading life. [Daniel Gray]

Out now, published by Five Leaves Publications. Cover price £7.99

For… skeptics

This is what you might call our ‘out of left field’ recommendation. Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932) was a writer who specialized in looking for the weird and wonderful in areas that science hadn’t fully (or at all) examined. The Book Of The Damned was his first book, but this edition includes all of his major works – The Book Of The Damned itself, then New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents. His investigations, always academic rather than in the field, are largely fascinating excursions into what we call the paranormal. Why for skeptics? Because Fort tells some fascinating tales, and he lacks the bizarre arrogance that most paranormal ‘experts’ exhibit, to their detriment. Fort has an endearingly weird style and he once said, “I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written”. So whilst Fort offers explanations for the weird, he isn’t wedded to them. In fact, in Lo! he includes the following sentences, each on their own line, so that “I have collected 294 records of showers of living things” is immediately countered with “Have I?” Most of the craziness he documents is as fascinating as his explanations are barmy. And that’s the joy of these books! [Keir Hind]

Out now, published by Penguin/Tarcher. Cover price £15.99.

For… news junkies

Gordon Burn, who died earlier this year, only wrote four novels, but they’re all fantastic. His first was Alma Cogan, which uses the strange concept of writing about the life of the English pop singer into the eighties, when she had actually died in 1966. His other novels are a similar mix of fact and fiction, and Born Yesterday is probably the most sophisticated of those. It takes place in 2007, and includes the news of the day in its plot – Blair’s highly choreographed final days, Madeleine McCann, the attempted terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London, and all of this is watched by a very Burn-like narrator. Burn wrote several non-fiction books – mostly sports (Best and Edwards is another great book, which nearly filled this spot) and true crime – and he’s well aware of how facts become story. The point of the book is that a novel on news is just as fictionalised as the news itself – and maybe even more valid, because this novel admits, even revels in, this fictionalisation, which the narrator becomes caught up in. All of Burn’s novels are worth reading – and by all means read them all – but this final one may be his definitive achievement. [Ryan Agee]

Out now, published by Faber. Cover price £7.99.