Christmas is a time to give generously and receive graciously. And yet… And yet. Many of us have opened Christmas presents and thought: what does it say about me that you thought this – this! – was the gift for me? Do you know me at all? The Christmas presents we receive can yield all sorts of insights into how our nearest and dearest see us, many of them quite unexpected.
Novels are, generally speaking, a flattering gift to receive. The giver thinks, at the very least, that you’re literate. Perhaps they even have you down as a sensitive intellectual. But if you don’t know what the book you’ve just unwrapped is, how can you pass instant judgement upon it? Happily, I can help with a guide to likely literary stocking fillers of 2014.
George Saunders: Tenth of December
What is it? Winner of this year’s Folio Prize and critical plaudits aplenty, Saunders’ book of satirical short stories has attracted attention in all the right quarters. Razor sharp and pretty bloody surreal, Saunders’ paranoid take on the contemporary consumerist world offers some bleak laughs.
How should I feel about it? You’re seen as a literary afficionado with a sense of humour as dark, classy and ethically spot-on as a bar of Green & Blacks Dark 70%. Feel smug.
John Green: The Fault in Our Stars
What is it? Wow, really? You haven’t seen this around? A Young Adult (YA) novel which has sold 10.7m copies since publication in 2012, the cult of The Fault in Our Stars has accelerated this year thanks to the film adaption. Written by novelist, historian and former children’s cancer ward chaplain John Green it’s a love story narrated by a wisecracking terminally ill teenage girl.
How should I feel about it? Don’t fret: it’s okay for adults to read YA novels now and doesn’t suggest that you are widely assumed to have the reading age of a 13-year-old. A novel with death, disease and teenage love at its centre risks collapsing into a sweet and gooey mess, but the story is rescued by Green’s dry wit and unflinchingly truthful approach. Risk surprising yourself and read it (with tissues).
Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
What is it? The winner of the Man Booker Prize this year, significant because 2014 marked the first time the prize was open to novels published outside the UK. Be sure to drily remark that it’s somehow better it went to an Australian and not an American. Flanagan mined his father’s harrowing experiences as a POW in Burma to write this stirring historical saga.
How should I feel about it? Do you get given the Man Booker Prize-winning novel every Christmas, squint at it squiffily on Boxing Day, then forget about it? If so, the universe is telling you to develop a stronger sense of what you actually like reading and come clean about it. No one needs a shelf full of guilt trips.
Karen Joy Fowler: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
What is it? Fowler’s story is essentially all about family – a subject that’s hard to escape at Christmas – and serves up the old nature/nurture debate with a refreshing new twist. Also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, not too shabby.
How should I feel about it? You’re seen as a switched-on and literary but unpretentious. You’re the kind of person with the confidence to put forward what to read next at Book Club from time to time, and who usually makes a popular choice. Feel quietly pleased.
Stephen King: Revival
What is it? King’s 49th novel, out last month, and he’s back in the horror genre with a story that King himself pronounced “too scary”. King tips his hat to Shelley’s Frankenstein in this tale of a washed-up musician and his friendship with a Methodist preacher whose experiments with electricity turn sinister…
How should I feel about it? If you’re a Methodist preacher, there may be grounds to take offence. If you’re just a discerning reader, though, you may want to suspend judgement. Horror is no longer banished to the literary basement (see YA fiction). You certainly shouldn’t dismiss the pull which King’s taut and twisted thrillers can exert on a reader, but by most accounts this latest doesn’t show him at the peak of his powers.
David Nicholls: Us
What is it? Nicholls’s first since the blockbuster One Day sees him retain his focus on the dynamics of romantic relationships over time. This time an older couple, Douglas and Connie, are on a “Grand Tour” of Europe with their teenage son before he leaves for university. But when the holiday is over, will Connie be leaving home too? A thoughtful but relatively lightweight novel which generated some column inches after its surprise inclusion on the Man Booker Prize longlist.
How should I feel about it? An absorbing enough read over the Christmas period, though the characters aren’t as much fun as those in One Day. The central question this time isn’t “will-they-won’t-they” get it together but the starker “will-they-won’t they” get a divorce. If this is a present from a spouse – particularly if she’s a hot-headed creative type and you’re a shy biochemist – you might want to ask some searching questions about your marriage. Maybe buy her a copy of George Saunders’s Tenth of December to show her you’ve still got it.