A Book Gift Guide

Whether it's someone you know well or someone you find hard to buy for, books are always a good gift solution, because they're cheap(ish), portable and usually available in all good book shops. Here are a few suggestions

Feature by Keir Hind | 29 Nov 2011

Note: These should all be out now, and available at less (in some cases much less) than the cover price if you shop around.

For... the techie.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson 

Probably the most notable biography of the year, this is also, perhaps surprisingly, one of the best. Jobs’ story was always an interesting one, and Walter Isaacson is an accomplished biographer. And one who, as a first principle, heads off the question of whether, because he had previously written biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, Jobs recruited him to write his biography because he saw himself as a successor to those men. No, said Jobs when Isaacson asked him this, but he was interested in them, and that’s what led him to Isaacson’s writing. With this out of the way, the Jobs story starts, where an adopted kid  in California grows up with an interest in technology, leading, initially, to several fun stories about electronics based pranks, which lead to the development of a machine for making free phone calls, and then, as a way to get the world in on the fun, personal computers. And then there’s the business expansion, the hiring of a Pepsi executive called John Sculley (“Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want to change the world?”) who eventually forces Jobs out of Apple, and then on to other business (including Pixar animation) and on to Jobs’ triumphant return. This isn’t necessarily just for techies in fact, as Jobs’ most positive legacy was making computers as user friendly as possible – this was typed on a Mac. Fascinating stuff. 

Cover price £25. Published by Little, Brown. An ebook version is no doubt available too

For... the TV nostalgist.

Only Fools and Horses: The Story of Britain’s Favourite Comedy by Graham McCann.

Only Fools… was a staple of the Christmas schedules for years, with yuletide specials regularly attracting record audiences, and with what was to have been the final episode, Time On Our Hands attracting over 24 million viewers. Anyone missing the series this Christmas could do a lot worse than getting hold of this comprehensive volume, which tells the story of the sitcom’s production from way before the start, to the end. The key figure, and the hero of this book, is writer John Sullivan, who was (and you’d expect this) a working-class Londoner, who was attracted to screenwriting when he heard how much Johnny Speight, writer of Till Death Us Do Part, earned. Artistic concerns may also have figured. Sullivan wrote every episode of the show, and his career is adeptly documented by writer Graham McCann, scribe of various biographies, including one of those other Christmas favourites Morecambe and Wise. McCann’s approach is exhaustive, and all the obvious stories are featured (did you know there’s an episode where Delboy falls through a bar?). There are unfamiliar ones too, and also explanations of some of the odder ones – it’s explained why Sullivan came to sing the theme tune himself, for example. A producer tricked him into it on a whim, Sullivan having exactly the right kind of London accent they needed. And if you’ve read this far, I’m sure I can get it stuck in your head now by starting it: 'No income tax, no V.A.T….'

Cover price £20. Published by Canongate

For… sci-fi crime fans, and others.

Novahead by Steve Aylett.

Well, as you’d expect from that heading, this is a detective novel in a science fiction setting. And if you’ve never experienced the delight that Steve Aylett’s prose can be, here’s a lengthy sample: “I’d just flicked a spider off the desk, sighed and prepared to rise when the shadow of someone’s head and shoulders appeared on the floor like the edge of a jigsaw piece. A galoot entered. His vibe was blank – I could see aura waste falling away from him like dead seeds. He even went with ‘Prepare to die, Mister Atom.’ ‘Right this minute?’ I asked dubiously. ‘It’s not particularly convenient.’“ Galoot, eh? That’s the first paragraph of this book, and it’s got the kind of prose that grabs you, the way crime writers like it to, with words like aura and atom mixed in, the way science fiction writers like them to. Steve Aylett is something of a cult writer, which is to say that his stuff can go the hot way or the cold. This is the hot. Shit, you’re as well to read this just for the sentences Aylett manages to get in there, but let’s say the plot involves a boy with a bomb in his head, and cops and criminals and detection and chasing around, all the good old stuff. And a mechanical swan, which is good new stuff. Buy this for someone and, love it or hate it, (probably love it), they won’t forget you for it.

Cover price £6.99. Published by Scar Garden Books

For… comic sci-fi fans.

Tancredi by James Palumbo

Tancredi is the name of a man, and that man is the main character of this book. What’s in a name? Well, Tancredi happens to be born on the same day that a star is discovered which may go supernova in such a way as to destroy the Universe. That star is called ‘Surprise’. Tancredi takes it upon himself to embark on a journey to save the Universe in a spaceship called ‘Invincible’, which is where the fun starts – but how long do you think the Invincible lasts? Funding his journey with his invention of the MoronOmeter, an always profitable device, there begins a picaresque space travel adventure as Tancredi, and his crazy crew, journey across the Universe. Despite dealing with the end of the Universe as we know it, this is a fun book, as Tancredi meets zanies after crazies, and Palumobi uses these characters to satirise our present. It’s said that the best science fiction actually deals with our now, and this can be seen as an illustration of that. It’s actually pretty light though, there’s illustrations and a dog and everything. It’s hard to describe, to be honest, let’s just say that if you like the look of Novahead you’ll probably like this too. And Palumbo’s previous book was recommended by the likes of … everyone! From Stephen Fry to Niall Ferguson, Noel Fielding to Rory Bremner, he had fans everywhere. Maybe you should give him a go too.

Cover price £9.99. Published by Marlborough Press

For… Someone you’re trying to get into comics.

The Kite Runner: Graphic Novel, by Khaled Hosseini with Fabio Celoni and Mirka Andolfo

The Kite Runner was an astonishingly successful runaway bestseller worldwide, and was translated into 51 languages. It therefore follows that it’s pretty likely you know someone who read and enjoyed it. And so this graphic novel version may be a useful gateway to the worthwhile pursuit of comic reading that you can foist upon whichever friend or relative you know who enjoyed the book. Given the success of the book in the first place, it was a dead cert that the creative team for this graphic novel would be at least good. And sure enough, Celoni and Andolfo’s art is fantastically accomplished. It maybe errs too much on the slick side, but that’s hardly a major criticism.  For anyone who hasn’t read the book, this may also serve as a useful introduction to it: it’s a story that begins with a flashback to 1970s Afghanistan, where (you’ll never guess) trouble is brewing, first slowly, and then all too suddenly. Hosseini, quite frankly, could be forgiven for phoning the story in at this point. But he hasn’t, and the script is an efficient abbreviation from the novel. And this serves to bring out the contrasting situations from the novel even more, because illustrations of the fun of kite battles aren’t too far away from those of grimmer scenes. A great companion to a major success.

Cover price £12.99. Published by Bloomsbury

For… Conspiracy theorists. 

Ascent by Jed Mercurio and Wesley Robins

Another graphic novel here, and this one’s pretty clever. There are many conspiracies about the moon landing, most of which deny it ever happened. Still, the Soviets did track it as it did happen, and they didn’t raise any objection at the time. Time for a new theory? One that has been suggested is that Yuri Gagarin may not have been the first man in space – he may, in fact, have simply been the first one to get back safely. Whether or not you believe that, it’s pretty intriguing. Jed Mercurio’s script for ascent goes even further – what if, he posits, the USSR managed to get a man to the moon, but couldn’t get him back, and so erased him from history? It’s a clever mash-up of previous conspiracy theories, and his story here tracks the life of one man who this could have happened to, a man whose life is cleverly told in a way that stresses how he could have been erased from history. Yefgenii Yeremin is an ace fighter pilot in the Korean War, sharing a sky with Glenn and Aldrin and feared by them too. But when he breaks the rules of engagement, his record is erased and he’s sent to an Arctic pilot’s base to live out of the spotlight. But when the Russians need a good pilot used to operating under extreme conditions, who do they come to? It’s a story so well realised as to almost convince you of its central thesis…

Cover price £16.99. Published by Jonathan Cape

For… seekers of new writing.

The Granta Book of the African Short Story edited by Helon Habila

In the introduction to this extremely welcome collection, Helon Habila mentions that it’s often, far too often, supposed that African Literature begins and ends with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. That is a great novel, but this collection proves extraordinarily well that there is a very large number of Great African Writers. There have, of course, been African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but none of these people have been represented here. This is not because of some creative exclusion policy, but because, again mentioned in the book’s introduction, the short story is strangely neglected by African writers. There are 30 contributors to this volume; I only recognised 4 of them initially. No matter, because quality writing does not ever depend on name recognition, and in fact it can be a far happier experience to discover new writers than to reread old ones. And remember, this is the best writing from a whole continent, so any collection such as this one should showcase a high standard of writing. Happily, this one does, and not only is it a high standard, but it’s a varied one at that, with funny stories, sad stories, abstract stories and stories with a twist in the tale. We include this here not because there’s likely to be any kind of person this will directly appeal to, but simply because it’s a great collection. You like writing? You like this. Simple.

Cover price £25. Published by Granta Books.

For... the quick reader.

The Instructions by Adam Levin

Why for the quick reader? Because this is a meganovel, a 1000 page-plus volume that repays your time investment in it in droves. Gurion Maccabee is a ten year old, and planning rebellion in his school. He has, of course, a very Jewish name, and to some extent the novel plays with themes of religious identity, but it also explores identity as a whole. Gurion is already in the behavior disorders department of his school, but his rebellion won’t take long – despite its length, the novel only takes place over 4 days or so. During those 4 days, Gurion – who considers himself a man of peace – works out exactly how best to rebel. But Gurion is a smart, and for his age very smart, kid, and so he’s great company. In a way, he has to be to justify the length of this book, but then the length allows all kinds of plot developments and references and ideas to spill forth as time passes through the book. And it’s not all text – there’s the occasional floor plan, or poster or a schematic for a kid’s weapon, most notably the penny gun (and if you’re of a fiendish mind, these do work too). Quite frankly, there’s way too much in The Instructions to cover in this entry, but quick readers – even slow readers to be honest – will find that this too much is a great deal to chew on in an engrossing novel.

Cover price £20. Published by Canongate

 For... the American Literature student.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

For students eh? Has Jeffrey Eugenides, the author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex kept up his own high standards with his third novel The Marriage Plot? Is this novel the most notable American literary release since Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom? Is the book’s setting, beginning with three recent college graduates, a way of commenting on the state of American letters – just barely escaping college level? – or is it simply a promising starting point? Eugenides is a highly acclaimed – Pulitzer Prize winning, even – author, but does this book justify that? For that matter, this book has received wide praise in the reviews it has had so far – was that justified? It’s been noted that the author’s writing style is particularly enjoyable, adding in sly jokes but not at the price of demeaning the characters – is this so? The book deals with a large cast of characters whilst using these same characters as a way to explore timeless themes like love, friendship and religious belief – to what extent does it do this in the same way as a Victorian novel would? How much can it retain in quality from the better examples of Victorian novels whilst adapting the elements of quality it retains for the modern era? And given the acclaimed author, the new version of an old style that the book uses in a broad sense, the well reviewed prose style and the generally heralded nature of the book, should we recommend it? Discuss. (Or just read, and enjoy).

Cover price £20. Published by Fourth Estate

For… People who don’t really read much.

Brung Up Proper by Jason Manford

“Oooh, look, Mavis, isn’t that that Jason Manford from off the telly, the one from the One Show?“ “Oh yes Aggie, and doesn’t the cover of that book look good? He’s got a lovely warm smile, so he has, and a nice, non-threatening haircut.” “And I don’t know what it can possibly say inside Mavis, but I hope it’s the ups and downs of a rags to riches tale about a cheeky chappy with a large Northern family who fight like right scrappers but all love each other really in a way that’ll warm my heart.” “I imagine you could be on to something there Aggie dear. But when you say Northern where exactly do you mean?” “Well it’s English Northern, so I mean to the South.” “Ah, yes, the North to the South, I’m sure he gets called ‘our Jason’ and so on down there in that North Agnes. That’s the sort of thing they say down there.” “And I gather from the title they say ‘brung up proper’ too, and I wouldn’t doubt that he was brought up properly too, Mavis” “What makes you say that Aggie?” “Well he looks like such a nice boy Mavis.” “Right you are Aggie, and I have to say it’s handy that he’s happened to have this book out at Christmas time because it’s the sort of thing I can buy young people I don’t know how to shop for." “Great idea Mavis. Let’s get five copies each.”

Cover price £18.99. Published by Ebury Books. Many, many other books are available though

For… indie kids.

It Chooses You by Miranda July

As well as being an award winning writer, Miranda July is the writer-director of the films Me And You And Everyone We Know and, most recently, The Future. This book came to be written when she was struggling to finish the script for The Future, and began reading Pennysaver obsessively. Pennysaver is simply a magazine full of small ads, with people selling things like Care Bears, or a Bengal Leopard Baby.  Many of us would be contented with simply enjoying the bizarre nature of some of these ads. July, in a monumental piece of displacement activity, took it upon herself to track down the sellers of various items, taking photographer Brigitte Sire along with her to capture them on film. It should be pointed out here, just for the record, that this is non-fiction. The result is this well produced book, a compendium of interviews with the normal (and generally lower income) people of Los Angeles. This is refreshing, because think of L.A .normally and what comes to mind? Hollywood sign, film premieres, okay. These are not those people, and all the better for it. July is a great interviewer too, friendly without being too leading, and bringing people’s personalities out in quick time. It’s all the more impressive that these personalities emerge from the initial starting point of, say, 'Tell me about your hair dryer.' And incidentally, Miranda July did finish her film, and it stars some of the people in this book. Maybe they are Hollywood after all.

Cover price £16.99. Published by Canongate

For... the Scottish Literature fan.

Wasted in Love by Allan Wilson.

Yes, we’ve covered this one before, but it merits inclusion here what with being really good, and also short. Brevity is often a good bet in Christmas books, because how much of someone’s time do you really want to take up? It should be noted here that Wasted In Love can take up a lot of time, if the reader wants it to, because this short story collection is full of ambiguities, as motivations are obscure and plot points oblique in ways that don’t confuse, but rather engage the reader. It’s a clever trick if you can pull it off. Wilson does – it would seem that when he’s not getting dragged round pubs playing pool and computer football games for the sake of ridiculous interviews in The Skinny, he actually spends time productively. This collection is a series of often very short short stories, and even the longer ones don’t go on very long at all. Which is to say they don’t outstay their welcome, but this is a small virtue, the least you’d expect. The real value of this book is in its authenticity. This is a picture of various Glaswegian lives (sometimes overlapping) that gives a real sense of place, not by listing street names as some have tried, but by depicting Glaswegians doing things that are brave, dumb, sly, ridiculous and all manner of other qualities, in the way you’d expect them to do them. Good stuff, basically.

Cover price £11.99. Published by Cargo