The best books to fill your family's stockings
Reads to warm a winter evening: From the Booker winner to heart-stopping page-turners, cold-blooded crime and raunchy romps, our reviewers choose the best books to fill your family’s stockings
- Literary critics rounded up a selection of their favourite novels from the year
- Geoffrey Wansell crime & thrillers picks includes Billy Summers by Stephen King
- Other critics picked the best historical, contemporary, debut and sci-fi novels
THE PROMISE by Damon Galgut (Chatto £16.99)
by Damon Galgut (Chatto £16.99)
No arguments about this year’s Booker winner, centred on a white family’s broken pledge to their black housekeeper in post-apartheid South Africa.
A sobering allegory, to be sure, but also a giddy pleasure, thanks to Galgut’s restlessly acrobatic narrative voice, which darts and zooms unpredictably around the action.
by Colson Whitehead (Fleet £16.99)
Whitehead followed his breakthrough hits The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys with this zesty gangster epic. It is set amid the racial divisions of 1950s New York, where an ambitious black businessman is seduced by the prospect of quick gains in the city’s criminal underworld.
LOVED AND MISSED
by Susie Boyt (Virago £16.99)
For emotionally astute storytelling that rings messily true to life, look no further than this tender but steely novel. It’s about a North London teacher who finds herself suddenly in charge of a newborn after her drug-addicted daughter, long since AWOL, turns up out of the blue with news.
KLARA AND THE SUN
by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber £20)
Can you imagine falling in love with a robot? And, if so, what might that say about the human soul? Ishiguro may have missed out on the Booker, but he distills the big questions of the day in this deceptively simple fable about the friendship between a desperately ill teenage girl, her terrified mother and an artificial friend.
OH WILLIAM! by Elizabeth Strout (Viking £14.99)
by Elizabeth Strout (Viking £14.99)
Elizabeth Strout continues the story of the eponymous novelist we first met in My Name Is Lucy Barton in her latest miniature masterpiece.
Lucy is grieving her second husband David but still good friends with her first, William, when he asks her to accompany him on a trip to Maine to track down a newly discovered step-sister. A terrific novel about loss, self-knowledge and the impact of time passing.
by Luke Cassidy (Bloomsbury £14.99)
The flow of Irish literary talent continues apace with this electrifying debut which follows Aoife, a small-town drug dealer, and her untameable girlfriend Annie on a doomed trip to England to offload 10kg of cocaine.
Cassidy excels at combining antic storytelling and vernacular lyricism with piercing observations of parochial Irish life.
by Sarah Hall (Faber £12.99)
Sex, death and art are the three pillars of Hall’s searing post-pandemic novel. When we meet her, famous sculptor Edith Harkness is about to complete her last commission, but at the centre of the book is her intense lockdown affair with a chef, described in visceral, indelible detail.
CROSSROADS by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate £20)
by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate £20)
Franzen’s giant slab of a family saga (just the first instalment) is perfect for getting lost in this Christmas, not least as its opening section takes place over Advent.
Juicy dilemmas abound as the Hildebrandt clan, headed up by recently humiliated pastor Russ, agonise over how — and indeed whether — to be good.
by Richard Powers (Hutchinson Heinemann £18.99)
This may not be Powers’s strongest novel, but it deserved its Booker shortlisting.
Centring on widowed astrobiologist Theo and his Greta Thunberg-like neuro-diverse son, it engages head-on with the environmental catastrophe that presents an existential threat to us all — and manages to be utterly absorbing.
THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY by Amor Towles (Hutchinson Heinemann £20)
THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY
by Amor Towles (Hutchinson Heinemann £20)
Crammed full of emotion, madcap escapades and hugely endearing characters, Towles’ outstanding third novel criss-crosses 1950s America as three wayward young men, and one sweet kid brother, go in search of fresh starts and family fortunes. Damaged by their pasts and heading into uncertain futures, their unruly ten-day odyssey is a beautiful, bittersweet adventure.
by Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday £14.99)
Great Circle is irresistible; an audacious epic that takes flight from the very first page. With two charismatic heroines — one an adventurous aviator, the other a disgraced film star — its dual time soars between Prohibition America and contemporary Hollywood, telling a vivid, colourful tale of two women battling to live their best lives.
by Lauren Groff (Heinemann £12.99)
In perfectly pitched, quietly lyrical prose, Lauren Groff unfolds the enthralling story of Marie de France, an awkward outcast at the court of Eleanor, who becomes the powerful poet-prioress of a once impoverished convent in 12th-century England. It’s a marvellously told story of devotion, desire and ambition in the heart of a female utopia.
CIRCUS OF WONDERS
by Elizabeth Macneal (Picador £14.99)
The Crimean War, the glitter and grime of a Victorian circus, and the complicated relationships between two brothers and a high trapeze artist in Jasper Jupiter’s Circus Of Wonders makes Elizabeth Macneal’s second novel a darkly seductive read.
Gothic in feel, and with finely drawn, convincing characters, it brilliantly explores performance, power and personal autonomy.
CRIME AND THRILLERS
BILLY SUMMERS by Stephen King (Hodder £20)
by Stephen King (Hodder £20)
An Iraq war veteran who became a hit man after he left the service, takes one last job to ensure his financial security, but finds that he is changed dramatically by this last experience. A poignant exploration of what it means to kill, this is a thriller that tugs at the heart-strings.
by David Baldacci (Macmillan £20)
In her second outing, FBI agent Atlee Pine finally finds out what happened to her sister Mercy, who was abducted when the girls were just six years old — destroying their family. But the discovery is immensely painful, and brings Pine even more anguish. This is Baldacci at his brilliant best.
by John le Carre (Viking £20)
The 26th and final outing for the master of the British espionage novel does not disappoint. Two former spies, Edward and his wife Deborah, are hiding in a small seaside town when their lives are turned upside down. It is a superb example of Le Carre’s enduring and exquisite genius.
APRIL IN SPAIN by John Banville (Faber £14.99)
APRIL IN SPAIN
by John Banville (Faber £14.99)
This successor to Booker Prize-winner Banville’s first literary crime novel, Snow, again features his gentlemanly Irish detective St John Strafford, but is set in Spain this time. It is an elegant story that never loses its serpentine grip on the way to a superb finale.
THE DARK HOURS
by Michael Connelly (Orion £20)
One of the world’s greatest crime writers is back with a case featuring two of his finest detectives — Harry Bosch and Renee Ballard.
A man dies on New Year’s Eve, while Ballard searches for serial rapists called The Midnight Men, and she recruits Bosch — vintage Connelly.
THE MURDER BOX
by Olivia Kiernan (Riverrun £14.99)
Kiernan’s exceptional talent for the unexpected is displayed in this fourth story featuring DCS Frankie Sheehan in Dublin. A glossy box arrives at her office which turns out to be a joke played out with a missing girl.
FOR YOUR OWN GOOD by Samantha Downing (Michael Joseph £12.99)
FOR YOUR OWN GOOD
by Samantha Downing (Michael Joseph £12.99)
This is a ferociously funny black comedy about the splendid Ted Crutcher, a public school teacher who thrives on inventing hells for his entitled pupils. But things become weird when Fallon Knight, one of his victims from the past, suddenly turns up at the school as a teacher. People start to die and matters go from strange to evil. Original and startling.
THE SCORPION’S HEAD
by Hilde Vandermeeren (Pushkin £9.99)
A contract killer with a conscience, a distraught mother suspected of trying to harm her son and a delicious Bond-style mastermind called Dolores Bartosz are the key characters in this dark, twisty tale.
Exactly who is guilty of what isn’t clear until the very last page. It’s written by a psychologist who is also a truly gifted storyteller. Worth reading for the character of Dolores alone.
by Laura Lippman (Faber £14.99)
Lippman produces another winner with this tale of an American writer, high on opioid painkillers following an accident, who thinks a female character from one of his books may be trying to harm him.
There are brilliant insights into the egotistical traits of writers, a compelling plot with well-drawn characters and an explosive ending. A perfect psychological thriller for fans or someone you would like to convert to the genre.
by Alex Michaelides (W&N, £14.99)
This is a terrific follow-up to Michaelides’s smash hit The Silent Patient. Set in a sort of amped-up backdrop of Cambridge University, Marianne, a young widow, investigates the death of her niece’s friend. She has to grapple with a secret society of beautiful young women, a suspiciously attractive professor and her own demons. Gripping.
STILL LIFE by Sarah Winman (4th Estate £16.99)
by Sarah Winman (4th Estate £16.99)
The best new book I read this year. A motley group of Cockneys leave the war-battered East End for the beauty, warmth and light of Florence. We follow them through the subsequent decades. Full of love and friendship, this is the kind of story you wish was real.
by A. J. Pearce (Picador £14.99)
Emmy, working on Woman’s Friend magazine, is asked by the War Office for articles recruiting women for munitions work. It’s exciting until she goes to the factories, sees the poor conditions and decides to take action.
Meanwhile, her wedding is approaching. Spiffing, warm-hearted and comfortingly decent.
APPLES NEVER FALL
by Liane Moriarty (Michael Joseph £20)
Joy Delaney has disappeared and husband Stan is suspected of her murder. Their four grown-up children try to work out what happened. Did the strange girl who moved in with their parents have anything to do with it? This sharp and perceptive tale of ambition, pressure and family politics has a tennis theme.
EMILY NOBLE’S DISGRACE
by Mary Paulson-Ellis (Mantle £16.99)
Paulson-Ellis’s subject is society’s forgotten and overlooked, and this seaside-set mystery is superb. Essie, a crime-scene cleaner, and Emily, a police officer, are called when the long-dead body of a woman is found in a former boarding house. But whose are the tiny bones? Slowly, a terrible story emerges.
ANIMAL by Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury £16.99)
by Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury £16.99)
This addictive literary thriller is my read of the year. Unique and brutally honest, narrator Joan is both victim and perpetrator as she takes us on a wild ride through the shame and sadness which characterise her existence. This is about abuse, control and power — and is raging, shocking and thought-provoking.
by Louise Nealon (Manilla Press £12.99)
Before she arrived at university, protagonist Debbie lived with her depressed, agoraphobic mother and eccentric uncle on their farm. Socially awkward but desperate to fit in, Debbie is dazzled by city life but also struggling with the family problems left behind.
A beautifully written, emotionally intelligent coming-of-age story which is wonderful for mental health.
NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS
by Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury Circus £14.99)
I had no idea when I reviewed this debut in January that it would be shortlisted for the Booker. I’m thrilled for the American author, an acclaimed poet born in a trailer, because this high-concept, often weird but absolutely accessible book about cancellation and homogenised internet opinion is full of wisdom.
EVERYONE IS STILL ALIVE by Cathy Rentzenbrink (Phoenix £14.99)
EVERYONE IS STILL ALIVE
by Cathy Rentzenbrink (Phoenix £14.99)
Juliet, Liam and their son Charlie move into Magnolia Road in South-West London. Liam determines to get under the skin of the neighbours by including them in his novel.
But when one of the couples breaks up, new tensions and cracks emerge in the group. I loved the sharp observation of the minutiae of marriage, motherhood and friendship, both hilarious and moving in turns.
by Virginia Feito (4th Estate £14.99)
Mrs March is married to a bestselling novelist celebrating his latest book. When someone assumes the main character — a prostitute with a dwindling clientele — is based on Mrs March herself, her world begins to fracture.
This is a superbly chilling psychological thriller and an extraordinary portrait of a woman on the edge.
by Sarah Gilmartin (One £12.99)
Halloween 2018, and Kate has a dinner party planned to commemorate the tragic early death of her sister. Her two brothers come, but not their mother.
Over the course of a dramatic evening, the years are rolled back to get to the heart of this family and where things went so wrong. A beautifully paced and insightful novel that had me utterly gripped.
THE FALLING THREAD
by Adam O’Riordan (Bloomsbury £14.99, 272pp)
In 1890 Charles is at home from university, bored, and sets his cap at Hettie, the young governess of his two sisters.
When she becomes pregnant, his parents arrange their marriage and life changes for both of them. This beguiling family portrait traces not just their fortunes but Charles’s sisters’ too, over the following decades of social change.
THE WISDOM OF CROWDS by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz £20, 528pp)
SCI FI AND FANTASY
THE WISDOM OF CROWDS
by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz £20, 528pp)
First came war, then peace and now, with the revolutionary spirit alive in the Middlerlands, the peasants are revolting and everyone’s life is turned upside down. Saddle up for vivid characters, garotte-tight plot twists, the best writing in the genre and the delicious sense that no good deed goes unpunished.
THE BLACK LOCOMOTIVE
by Rian Hughes (Picador £16.99)
What? A gigantic, spaceship from prehistory discovered under London and the only way in is with a pre-war steam engine, hidden in secret government tunnels?
The problem is knotty but the solution worthy of a Boy’s Own comic in this conceptually complex, graphically gorgeous, full-steam-ahead masterpiece.
UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR
by T.J. Klune (Tor £16.99)
If Bill Bryson visited Limbo, he’d just love the tea shop at Charon’s Crossing — the afterlife’s waiting room. Wallace doesn’t. He’s a crabby accountant’s ghost who must learn it’s never too late to live and love — even when you’re dead. In short, enchanting.
NOTES FROM THE BURNING AGE
by Claire North (Orbit, £18.99)
Since the Burning Age, religion has been all about living in harmony with nature, but with a new, populist movement intent on repeating the mistakes of the past, it’s time to ditch old loyalties. A gripping, utterly involving, dystopian eco-thriller that balances the intimacies of betrayal against global climate collapse.
To buy any book on these pages for 10% discount visit www. mailshop.co.uk/Christmas or call 020 3176 2937
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