Ten Brilliant Books That Make Ace Last-Minute Gifts

Crap at doing your Christmas shopping on time? Keep calm and buy them a book!
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Crap at doing your Christmas shopping on time? Keep calm and buy them a book!

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Are you still looking for that perfect Christmas gift? Are you too lazy to find something yourself? Are too you busy sitting at home drinking port and watching complete tosh on the telly to think of anything good? Thought so. Fear not, fellow sluggards let me lend a helping hand. How about a book?

What’s not to love? They’re portable, reasonably priced and will keep your loved ones quiet while you settle down to watch Die Hard on Christmas Day. Add to that the kudos you’ll get for showing off your intellectual nous and pseudo-literary skills, and you’ve got the perfect gift.

Sorted. Oh wait, what’s that? You don’t know which books to buy? Man alive, you really are desperate, aren’t you? Go on then, here are my top ten books I’ve devoured in 2011. (If you’re feeling incredibly lazy, just print this off and give it to a Waterstones/local bookshop worker, grunt and point and with any luck, they’ll get the idea).

In no particular order…

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick

The Bridge follows the life of Barack Obama tracing his family history from its African routes, through his childhood in Hawaii and on to Chicago and, well, you know the rest.

If it’s shocking Piers Morgan-style revelations you want, this isn’t for you. The Bridge merely aims to unmask the President of the United States as well as his work-a-holic nature that took him to the White House.

Remnick has a knack for weaving a lively narrative that holds your hand through some dense non-fiction territories yet doesn’t talk down to you. Despite his obvious pro-Obama tendencies his partisanship rarely spoils a great, trivia-heavy book that will entertain and inform. Plus, clocking in a substantial 600 pages, this meaty tome will keep some loved one quiet for a while.

Mr Chartwell has come to visit them both. But they don’t know who, or what he is. As it turns out, Mr Chartwell is a huge, black dog.

Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

Let’s get this out the way; essentially, this book is about depression. Not exactly the perfect festive read you may think, but this emotional, dark and at times hilarious debut novel is too good to leave under the tree.

On a summer’s morning in Kent in 1964, Winston Churchill wakes up to find a visitor in his room. While in Battersea, the young and lonely Esther Hammerhans answers her door to a new lodger. Mr Chartwell has come to visit them both. But they don’t know who, or what he is. As it turns out, Mr Chartwell is a huge, black dog.

At Last by Edward St Aubyn

This may just be my favourite book of the year. The concluding part of Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose family trilogy is bloody fantastic. Alcohol, funerals, prodigious children; this has it all.

It’s witty, pithy and contains some of the finest fiction characters in years, I’m almost fed up of gushing on about it.

Almost. Don’t worry if you’ve not read the previous novels in the series, At Last was my first taste of St Aubyn before I read the whole series in order and found At Last to work as a standalone novel as well. Bonus if whomever you give this to likes it, you’ve got two previous books to give them next year. Sorted.

I’m Not Really Here by Paul Lake

One for the sports lovers out there. By and large football autobiographies tend to be a bit rubbish; washed out by over-protective agents and manuscripts going through round after round of legal vetting tends to sap the joy and entertainment out of your run-of-the-mill football fable. Not this one.

Paul Lake, to the uninitiated, was Manchester City’s future England captain and defensive dream. He was ‘the next big thing’ until a series of injuries forced him to retire aged 27.

By and large football autobiographies tend to be a bit rubbish; washed out by over-protective agents and manuscripts going through round after round of legal vetting tends to sap the joy and entertainment out of your run-of-the-mill football fable. Not this one.

I’m Not Really Here is at times incredibly hard to read as you discover the anguish and pain Lake felt by the physical and mental injuries he suffered. It’s not all sad though, the author has oodles of anecdotes up his sleeve and finding out he has gone on to a successful career as a physiotherapist and is now working for Manchester City as a community ambassador give this a heartwarming end that’s sure to roast your chestnuts.

Mendelssohn is on the Roof by Jiri Weil

This one is cheating a bit as it was originally published in 1960, but Daunt Books lovingly reprinted it in English last June, so I’m having it on my list.

Mendelssohn is on the Roof is remarkable and incredibly moving Holocaust novel. It’s jam-packed full of dark humour and bitter irony as it tracks the transformation of everyday lives in Prague during Nazi occupation during World War Two. The opening gambit is that two Jewish workers are ordered to remove a statue atop a music hall of the composer Mendelssohn by a Nazi officer who can’t actually figure out which statue is which. “Whichever one has the biggest nose, is the Jew” he orders. As it turns out, it wasn’t.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From the Goon Squad was one of the most talked-about books of the year, and it deserved to be. Apparently, Egan was inspired by The Sopranos and its exhaustive cast of characters coming in and out of the storyline; popping up in season one and not returning until season three, that sort of thing.  So as you can expect, there are a lot of people to meet in this novel, but what a cast they are.

Goon Squad follows a group of friends as they grow up, get old, marry, have kids, get divorced, get fired and settle down. It’s funny, lively and you can romp through it like there’s no tomorrow due to Egan’s fantastically accessible writing style. A cracker.

Submarine by Joe Dunthorne

Have you seen the movie? Great, wasn’t it? Now read the book and get an idea how hard it would be to adapt a film of this off-the-wall novel. Dubbed ‘the modern day Adrian Mole’, Joe Dunthorne’s debut novel is seeping with imagination. Life as a 14-year-old Welsh boy has never sounded so brilliant.

As dry as a Jacob’s cracker and as tasty as the Christmas pate upon it, Submarine will show you the teenager you could have been (but glad you weren’t).

Oliver Tate is a social commentator, spy, ladies man, explorer, vocabulary-obsessed emotional melting pot. Then he meets a girl. Jordana. Remember what dating was like as a teenager? Well, this makes it seem a whole load better.

As dry as a Jacob’s cracker and as tasty as the Christmas pate upon it, Submarine will show you the teenager you could have been (but glad you weren’t).

Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers

Short stories so good, you’ll wish each one was a novel. Stuart Evers’ debut is a collection of intense tales about modern life and what it has to offer: relationships, work, family, cigarettes and alcohol. Sounds like Christmas to me.

It’s not just what’s inside that’s incredible though, the packing is something to behold – a beautiful present for the smoker in the family.

Fire Season by Philip Connors

Cut from the same cloth as Jack Kerouac, Jon Krakauer and Ernest Hemmingway, Philip Connors' Fire Season is the true story of one man alone in the wilderness.

Philip Connors’ job is to watch out for fires. At the top of a watchtower. In the middle of the New Mexico forests. On his own. For most of the year. Odd, no?

Connors tells tales of roaring fires, run-ins with bears and thunderstorms to shake the soles of your shoes. One of the more unusual books of the year, this will make you want to pack your bags and head across the Atlantic in search of some peace and quiet away from the never-ending chatter in the living room.

Spurious also has some of the best literary put-downs I’ve read in a long time (perfect ammo for some festive-fuelled family fights) and will keep you chuckling, when you’re not examining your walls for damp that is.

Spurious by Lars Iyer

Another debut novel to finish off the list. Spurious tells the story of a writer-cum-philosopher narrator and his ever-more successful pal, W. as they search for better gin, better things to talk about and how to get rid of the fungus that is slowly spreading over the walls of his flat.

Spurious also has some of the best literary put-downs I’ve read in a long time (perfect ammo for some festive-fuelled family fights) and will keep you chuckling, when you’re not examining your walls for damp that is. Refreshingly different.

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