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Whether you are looking for the perfect gift, to block out the final days of 2020 with a rollicking good yarn, or to deck out your Zoom backdrop so your friends think you are ~learnèd~, there has never been a better time to buy books. Having launched in the UK this November, https://uk.bookshop.org/ allows you to buy new copies of great books, all whilst supporting local businesses in the UK (and for our readers across the pond, a USA equivalent also exists!).

Although buying second-hand can seem a social faux pas, it can also be a great way to support charities and local traders, as well as being a more environmentally sound option! (Bonus points if your second-hand purchase contains a mysterious handwritten inscription that hints at a scandalous forbidden romance from the 1910s.)

Convinced that books are the way forward, but still struggling to decide which one is right for you or your loved ones this Yuletide season? Have no fear – I’ve got you covered with ten(...ish) great reads for the holidays, including some wintry ghost stories, sheer escapist page-turners, and of course, some snuggly Christmas-themed selections.

The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories (Collection by Penguin Books, 2019)

I hereby declare that reading aloud should be a part of everyone’s Christmas itinerary (cue the anguished groans of all those under my roof as I drag them to the foot of an armchair), and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better anthology to equip yourself with this winter. What I particularly love about this collection is its diversity, with offerings from several countries and writers from a range of backgrounds, all rubbing elbows. Furthermore, every selection is a masterpiece in miniature, ranging from imaginative fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson and Angela Carter, to tightly-crafted shorts by Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury. Bonus points go to the gorgeous design of the hardcover release, bound with an evocative minimal illustration that will stand out on the shelf!

Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares (David Levithan & Rachel Cohn, 2010)

A light and breezy rom-com that’s positively oozing with Christmas cheese. Initially written as a back-and-forth email exchange between the two authors, Book of Dares alternates between the viewpoints of the delightfully bookish Dash and the wanderlusting Lily, as they engage in a whimsical treasure hunt across a snow-crusted New York City. It may be “young adult” fiction, but its sheer wholesome vibes are exactly what everyone needs this December. Be sure to bag the book before you binge the miniseries, now available on Netflix.

The Lost Spells (Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris, 2020)

The perfect gift for children both young and old, this gorgeous volume evokes the natural world in poetry that sounds like the incantation of spells when read aloud, all accompanied by sophisticated watercolour and ink artwork.

The Ghost Stories of M R James (M R James, written between 1904-1925)

If you’re like me and believe that a winter’s tale is at its best when full of sprites and goblins, then it doesn’t get much better than the eerie tales of M R James. A master of suggestion and the everyday uncanny, James’s stories were initially written to be read aloud to his friends on Christmas Eve by candlelight – sign me up!

Hangover Square (Patrick Hamilton, 1941)

If you prefer your macabre winter reading to be a little less fantastical and far more gripping, then this blackly comic noir thriller is the perfect company for a dull December night. London fog and frost-blackened architecture provide the backdrop for a seedy city populated with barstool philosophers, failed artists, and flourishing sociopaths. Stuffed full of cynical wit, Hangover Square remains more chilling than the weather outside, and is a novel which often feels as if it is reading you whilst you are reading it.

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern, 2011)

If it’s sheer escapism you’re looking for this holiday, look no further than the truly magical world crafted by Erin Morgenstern in The Night Circus. A tale of star-crossed magicians unknowingly competing against one another in a circus arena, this is one for fans of florid language, with prose that appeals to the senses and many memorable set pieces to be discovered in the various exhibits detailed throughout.

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis, 1997)

Thanks to the heritage of Dickens and Doctor Who, I find that nothing really does say Christmas like Victorian England. Taking inspiration from the classic comic novel Three Men in a Boat, Connie Willis’ richly detailed and delightfully buoyant novel is sure to satisfy all those anglophile urges as it follows the disastrous exploits of Ned, a “historian” at Oxford in the year 2057 (read: time-traveller) who suffers an unpropitious loss of memory during a vital mission to prevent Time from unravelling in the year 1888.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino, 1972)

It may be short, but you’ll want to savour every word of Calvino’s lush, evocative masterpiece. Perhaps one of the most poetic works of fiction, Calvino’s imagining of a tale being woven by Marco Polo in the court of Kublai Khan ruminates on loss, identity, home, and belonging… (just like a grandparent after one too many sherries!)

Piranesi (Susanna Clarke, 2020)

If work and studies have got you feeling out-of-touch with more recently lauded works, then perhaps the holidays are the time to brush up on your contemporary literature. Susanna Clarke’s long-awaited follow-up to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell has been a defining book of 2020 not just for its tremendous craft and ambition, but also in its unexpected explorations of isolation and being confined to a home which can be dangerous and (in this case, literally) labyrinthine.

The Seasonal Quartet: Autumn / Winter / Spring / Summer (Ali Smith, 2017-2020)

Rounding off our list is one of the literary events of the past decade. Written with tremendous pace on the back of major recent world events, it really doesn’t get much more contemporary than this as Ali Smith explores the refugee crisis, environmental activism, and Brexit across four novels which can both be read as standalones, or as one epic whole. 

I hope one or perhaps a few of these tickle your fancy! Happy reading!

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Matthew Gray

St Andrews '22

Matthew Gray is a student of Film and Literature with a particular interest in the often neglected and unfinished histories of women writers and filmmakers. He is also passionate about theatre, having penned the plays "life is shit." and "Edward II (after Marlowe)," which were both performed in St Andrews. Counted among his numerous obsessions are classical music, Kate Bush, the Weimar Republic, and animals (both of the human and non-human variety).
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