Bah Humbug: A Literary Gift Guide

The Skinny Books team melt celebrity ego before the open fire, looking past inane memoirs to suggest the finest literary offerings to gift the family this Christmas

Feature by The Skinny Books Team | 01 Dec 2014

Earlier in the year Sunday newspapers across the nation were soaked in regurgitated coffee, a result of discovering that Joey Essex had somehow managed to place multiple words in order and top the UK bestseller list with his autobiography Being Reem. A number one bestselling author; this was not ‘reem’ at all. In fact it felt that things might never be ‘reem’ again. But as we approached the festive season things deteriorated further. Christmas can be a tough time for the lonely, the destitute, the Skinny Books editor. Bookshops’ Super Thursday (this year 9 Oct) – the starting pistol for the Christmas bestseller list – heralds a season of discontent and unwanted puppies, of vacuous celebrity memoirs flooding the publishing schedules. They teem with weak sporting word play – Rio Ferdinand’s #2sides, Roy Keane’s The Second Half – and uninspired variations on My Story, My Autobiography, My Life; or, in the case of Tulisa, the additional veiled threat …So Far. These tomes of selfabsorption should not just be for Christmas, but for the bonfire and purification at 451 Fahrenheit.

But, The Skinny Books team have been working hard to bring inspired gift ideas to our dear readers, our personal choices of titles published within the year. So instead of stuffing stockings with banal confessionals sprinkled in the cheap glitter of celebrity, take a look at some literary works of wonder 2014 has offered.

For the drunken vagabond uncle in need of salvation, there is The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. The advent of mobile phones ruined many a movie script. How can we now suppose any pretence of true isolation? Extreme conceptual measures must be taken to have characters feasibly unaware of the plots building around them. For his most recent (and tragically final) novel, Faber simply blasts his protagonist into deepest space, creates a black and endless void in which only rudimentary communication is possible. These are the unspoiled laboratory conditions under which human communication and one particular relationship is studied. Peter, a Christian minister, spreads the Gospel among the alien population of the planet he has been sent to help colonise: a population with a hunger for the good book, who swallow it whole and blindly accept – a perfect and malleable flock. Yet they remain as unreadable and inhuman as the foreign legion of misfits who, for their own reasons, have sought out this emotional desert. This story is told in tandem with the electronic written communications between Peter and his wife Bea, back on earth facing apocalypse. The belief they must hold in one another compares with the unwavering faith of the alien congegration. This is a work of mood and emotion, deep and weighty themes very lightly worn by a haunting and immersive narrative and written in perfect polished marble prose. Many books take decades to mature into acknowledged masterpieces; The Book of Strange New Things was born as one. [Alan Bett]

Get a gift right and you can open up a whole new world to someone and spark an interest that they'll run with for years to come (which also makes it way easier to buy their presents next time round). Graphic novels are currently in a weird little limbo between being majorly in fashion and as niche as ever. Characters clad in Kevlar and all manner of multi-coloured spandex have leapt from between the pages to storm the big screen and batter their way to the front of the pop cultural hive-mind, but for all the attention their yearly multi-million-dollar heroics are attracting, the books that birthed them remain terra incognita to most. The existence of the vast lands outwith the domain of superheroes is often forgotten altogether, like a kind of literary Wales. IDP: 2043 might make the perfect entry point for newcomers to the graphic novel scene. With the likes of Irvine Welsh and Denise Mina contributing, there's a familiarity for those who've so far stuck to the pictureless side of the literary globe and with the eclectic collision of styles provided by the illustrators – from cuddly cartoons to noirish nightmares – something's sure to click with every sort of reader. Maybe more importantly, with a full-throttle plot and a sharp-edged humour, the novel itself is just a hell of a lot of fun. [Ross McIndoe]

Zadie Smith may need them “like crack”, but the books of literary sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard prove far more suitable Christmas gift ideas than the rock; easier to score in Waterstones, simpler to wrap. Although in comparison, some might argue that the publication of this six-volume autobiography – the third title translated from Norwegian and published this year – has also ruined lives. They have attracted death threats and fuelled more domestic carnage than Buckfast with Christmas dinner. Knausgaard himself claims to have sold his soul, swapping family harmony for the vast success these books have brought. Boyhood Island, while third in order of publication, is the first chronologically and a departure in many ways. While his other titles muse over adult experience through the prism of his older self, Boyhood Island is a straight first-person narrative of youth – the fears, anxieties, joy and pain implicitly connected to childhood. Apart from family concerns, the series title has provoked on a more universal level. My Struggle (Min Kamp – Mein Kampf) has been used previously of course, by someone less literary minded. But the notoriety of Knausgaard’s work should in no way detract from this fascinatingly normal life put under the microscope – an everyday epic in which ‘The flames of truth and beauty burn.’ This is a man reading the patterns of his own life, attempting to understand it. Boyhood Island can be bought alone or as part of a pack containing the first three series titles, just depends how much you like your Secret Santa. And if they like it? Well with three still to be translated into English, you know what to get next year. [James Allen]

Remember your granny was saying how rare it is to find collected short stories from 20th-century Italian authors, how she's starved of metaphysical, witty takes on our universe and our planet’s lives, how Italo Calvino, author of that one she liked, the one about a chilly nocturnal rambler, Italo Calvino, dead near three decades, should get off his tanned Mediterranean tush and publish again, how she couldn’t even remember, I mean, when, really, was the last time anyone had entertained the notion that our universe may well have burst into life at the very moment an immortal being resembling a gorgeous and kind Italian matriarch exclaimed, ‘Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some tagliatelle for you boys,’ and you’ll remember how desperate she was for four hundred pages, give or take, of playfulness and of genius, the sort that can encapsulate everything – truly everything – as, say, ‘that little that was generated from nothingness, the little that is and that might very well not be, or be even smaller, even more meagre and perishable,’ words perhaps related by a narrator with an unpronounceable name – ‘Qwfq,’ for instance – variously a subatomic particle, a subterranean giant and a dinosaur, remember how she said all this before gesturing at the nearness of Christmas and the importance of satisfying the whims of the elderly, remember how she said all that over mince and buttery tatties last Sunday? Well here you have it, a new edition of The Complete Cosmicomics. [Angus Sutherland]

More From the Skinny:

• Unto The End: Michel Faber on his last masterpiece

• Visualising Scotland's Future

All books mentioned here are available from the usual bookshops and online