Books make the best presents, says Anne Miller, so here are some ideas for what to put under your tree this year.
When I was at school, my friend Natalie told me she’d been to the local bookshop and done all her Christmas shopping. I remember wondering how on earth you could know what someone had already read so how could you possibly know what to get them?
Come Christmas she gave me a copy of The Book of Political Bollocks – I (a keen politics pupil at the time) thought this was an exceptional gift and realised any reservations about having a copy already are far outweighed by the joy of getting it very, very right.
Also, what’s the worst that can happen if you do end up with two copies – give one to a friend or keep it as a spare!
Now, everyone gets books. Not always (cue my brother’s surprise on his recent birthday: “what, no book this time?”) but often. Here are my favourite books I’ve been buying lately – if you know me in real life you’ll probably either already own some of these or should stop reading now.
Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
Station Eleven is my favourite kind of dystopian future – it’s very similar to our current world but with just one plausible change. In this case it is the Georgia flu – which rampaged across the planet taking 99.99 per cent of the population with it. As a result almost everything as we know it has disappeared. No internet, no power, no borders – as countries are replaced by small settlements of people dotted across the continental landmasses.
We meet main character Kirsten as a child actor in King Lear before the collapse then after, as a hardened adult with two tattoos she wishes she didn’t have. Kirsten is part of a group called The Travelling Symphony who travel North America performing Shakespeare plays.
Their motto, “because survival is insufficient” is beautifully fitting, although as they say it “would be way more profound if we hadn’t lifted it from Star Trek.” Station Eleven is completely captivating, beautifully written and ultimately about finding hope, even in the worst-case scenario.
The Bees, Laline Paull
The Bees could be described as a dystopian future – you have to stay within your faction, obey the hierarchy and be prepared to give your life for the group – but it’s set in a beehive where all these things happen in real life.
Paull’s novel, which was shortlisted for the Baileys Prize 2015, is about the life of Flora 717 from the moment she hatches into the Arrivals Hall as a sanitation worker.
Declared as larger (and uglier) than she should be, Flora also has talents. She is gradually allowed to perform tasks outside the usual sanitation worker’s duties and begins to see how the hive runs as a whole.
The novel describes the life of a bee in glorious detail as it follows Flora’s battle to follow the hive’s rules and serve her queen, “Accept, Obey and Serve” against her own mind which begins to want different things. It’s compelling, unputdownable prose. As the New York Times said “the buzz surrounding this book and its astonishing author is utterly deserved.”
The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion
Realising that he’d quite like a wife one day he creates a 16-page questionnaire – The Wife Project. Enter Rosie, theoretically the most unsuitable woman for him who throws his world into chaos.
Don is neatly summed up when he wants to see Rosie again so decides to cancel his scheduled shopping trip in favour of a ready-made dinner, “I am sometimes accused of being inflexible, but I think this demonstrates an ability to adapt to even the strangest of circumstances”.
Then there’s the Jacket Incident – when he gets into a scuffle with a bouncer for insisting his Gore-Tex anorak means he is following the “jackets required” dress code, he’ll keep the coat on during the meal if they really insist. He also has a Standardised Meal System (save time, money and brain space by assigning a set meal to each day of the week) which “despite its substantial advantages, most people consider odd”. Both Don and this book are genuinely brilliant.
The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, Katherine Woodfine
A gorgeous children’s book about Sophie, a 14-year-old who recently lost her father and is employed to work in the millinery department of Sinclair’s, London’s first department store. As the grand opening approaches, an exhibition of treasures is set up.
When a priceless item – a clockwork sparrow that plays a different tune each time it is wound – goes missing, Sophie is falsely accused. She and her new pals team up to solve the mystery which includes code breaking, spying and escaping from a locked room as they fight to clear her name and unmask their nemesis.
Through Sinclair’s, Woodfine creates a sumptuous world for her characters to roam through and her readers to linger in: “[Sophie] had been falling in love with the store since the very first moment she saw it on the day of her interview, when it had been noisy with the sounds of sawing and hammering, and had smelled of sawdust and paint. Even then, it had seemed more like a place from a fairy story than any dull, ordinary shop.”
Walk The Lines, Mark Mason
Treats include that the early (steam-powered) Metropolitan Line was described as a “health resort” for people with asthma but at the same time drivers were allowed to grow beards in an (unsuccessful) attempt to filter out the smoke.
His next book Move Along Please describes his journey from Lands End to John o’ Groats by local bus, which took him 11 days and 46 bus journeys. His most recent, this year’s Mail Obsession, contains something interesting for every postcode in Britain. For example, in 2008, a lorry driver trying to deliver 12 barrels of lager to a pub called the Windsor Castle accidentally delivered them to Windsor Castle.
If you’re after facts there’s also QI’s latest book 1,234 QI Facts To Leave You Speechless. I’m a bit biased as I worked on this but it includes such gems as Starbucks in the CIA’s headquarters doesn’t write customer’s names on the cups, cats prefer classical music to pop songs and the most-borrowed book from the Houses of Parliament library is called How Parliament Works.1895 Views
Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne