Christmas Picks for Grown Ups

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my Christmas picks for kids, and today, I’m sharing some of the best books for grown ups that I’ve read this year. 2013 has been a good year for my bookshelf, with some unexpected discoveries and some long-anticipated new releases. I’ll be sharing some of that good book lovin’ with my people this Christmas.


My first choice is a no brainer. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History has been my unchallenged favourite novel of all time since I first discovered it almost a decade ago, and several re-reads in the interim have only cemented its place at the top of the heap. It has actually been more than two decades now since The Secret History was released, and in that time new novels from Donna Tartt have been few (as of this year, two) and far between (one every ten years or so). You can imagine my anticipation, then, when an advanced reading copy of The Goldfinch found its way into my sweating palms. To give you some notion of what to expect (insofar as that is possible), The Goldfinch follows the trajectory of thirteen year old Theo Decker, who, in a daze after the explosion at the Met that kills his mother, smuggles a 15th century Dutch masterwork from the gallery, and embarks upon a decade-long struggle to comprehend what has happened to him, and where he is going. I’ll say no more of the plot – at nearly 800 pages, it’s a whopper of a book, and it is far, far more than the sum of its plot points – and focus instead upon the sheer pleasure of the reading experience. I can hardly articulate how immersed I was, how in love with every sentence, ever paragaph, every page. As in The Secret History, Tartt’s prose sparkles, and her uncanny knack for creating such ambiguity around her characters will have you following Theo down the rabbit hole and into the dark before you have any notion of how completely you are being led. The Goldfinch draws you down the well, into the vast underground caverns of the world and of the mind, and at its centre glows the painting, both an anchor and a mirage, “a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea (p. 602).” Do someone a great kindness and give them this book for Christmas (just make sure you read it yourself first).


This is another book I loved so much that I find it hard to talk about, but blogging is clearly not making me more articulate if I just keep saying, “I just can’t describe it!” and count that as writing, so I’ll give it a shot. This a book that is simultaneously about one thing – walking – and about everything – stories, adventures, poetry, history, art, science, mythologies, landscape, death, haunting, memory, memoir… It’s a tricky book to pin down. In terms of structure, The Old Ways is divided up into four parts – England, Scotland, Abroad (Israel, Spain and Tibet), and England again – each part covering a number of thematically themed walks in the given area. This is no travel guide, however, or, maybe it is a travel guide, but the terrain it maps is as much in the mind and the soul as the physical world. As he tramps, Macfarlane explores the relationship of path-forging to story-telling, and examines the almost occult effects of landscape on the psyche. This is travel writing, but it is also a very philosophical, esoteric book, filled with startling and strange ruminations on what it means to be a person moving through the world. With his keen eye for the terrain and vast curiosity about the history and mythology of the regions he explores, Macfarlane seems to perceive broader parameters for existence and for discerning meaning – his is a way of seeing, of knowing, that is utterly unlike anyone else’s. This book opens up the possibilities of sight, perception and movement, and it left me feeling as though I was experiencing the world through a different lens. The Old Ways is a truly unique and curious work, a treat for your soles and your soul.


This one is a bit of a hard sell for Christmas time. Not a lot of uplifting good news in the realm of returned servicemen and -women, and the treatment (or lack thereof) of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Next year, we’ll see the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and the publishing machine is already over-stuffing the shelves with new tomes on the subject. Of course, it’s important to know our history, to know what went before, but what David Finkel’s book asks us to do is to face what is happening right now, the shocking consequences of our current military conflicts, not only in terms of what they do to those of other nations but to our own people whom we send into harm’s way. Finkel’s depiction of these returning soldiers and the unbelievable challenges they and their families face is eye opening and heart breaking. From the peaceful privilege of my reading chair it’s impossible to imagine what these young people have experienced overseas, and what they continue to experience – emotional collapse, depression, unemployment, domestic violence, homelessness, suicide – as they come back to a system with inadequate services and inadequate comprehension of the issues they face. Finkel’s writing is superb and the depth of his personal and journalistic investigation impressive. This is such an important story, an uncomfortable story that is easier to overlook, but for the right person this will be a moving and eye-opening gift. (Let me add as a postscript that I followed up this book with The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, a breathtakingly poetic and shocking novel about the Iraq war by an ex-serviceman. If fiction on this subject is more up your alley, I can’t recommend it strongly enough).

Mary Oliver(c) Dorothy Alexander  

If David Finkel is too dark for you, something by Mary Oliver might be more your pace. She’s been publishing poetry since the 1960s and already has a Pulitzer, so I’m pretty late to the party, but as someone who didn’t previously read poetry for pleasure her work has been a revelation. She does cop a bit of flak for being too accessible, for being a lowbrow poet, but I’m not such a snob that I care about that. New and Selected Poems Volume I opened me up, changed my way of thinking and seeing, forcing me to slow down, allowing my reading to become almost a form of meditation. Oliver invites you to observe nature, to recognise how alien and yet how familiar it is, and to feel your own self, equally unknowable, yearning to disperse back into the world. Like Macfarlane, she offers a different way of experiencing, of existing as a person in the world, and she grapples so gracefully with the anguish of being at once a part of the world and separate to it. One of my favourites, from a collection of the same name, 1978:

Sleeping In The Forest
I thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

New and Selected Poems Volumes I and II are great introductions to her work. I also love the collections American Primitive, and Why I Wake Early. I don’t know so many people who buy poetry for themselves, but a well-chosen collection makes a beautiful and thought-provoking gift. You may even spawn another Mary Oliver disciple – god knows, one collection was all it took for me!

And there you have it, my Christmas recommendations. If you are a member of my family, spoiler alert, you might be getting one of these for Christmas – I hope I’ve sold them to you well enough!


Christmas Picks for Little Folk

I may not be buying any books for myself in November, but it’s getting to that time of year when I start thinking about Christmas gifts for family and friends, and my customers do too. As you’d expect, November always sees an increase of requests for recommendations at the shop, and I like to have an arsenal of excellent picks to draw on when someone asks. These are a few new and old books for little people that are floating my boat right now (and please, dear reader, while you’re shopping for littlies, dont be ashamed to have a read yourself. There are some truly outstanding writers working in this area that you would be remiss to pass over!).

charmed life dianawynnejones livesofchristopherchant

My first pick is anything and everything by Diana Wynne Jones. I’m not going to limit this to a particular title, as she is enormously prolific and all of her novels that I have read have been equally engaging. Diana’s work was my big kids book discovery of the year. Of course, her books have been around forever (ok, since the 1970’s), but somehow as both a kid and as a children’s bookseller, I managed to miss out on reading her work. Until now. This year, I’ve devoured five or six of her many novels for young readers, and I’ve found myself in the presence of a true master of the form. The scope of her imagination was vast,  and her prose imbued with humour, the most vivid imagery, and a wicked pace that keeps you turning pages past bedtime. Most interesting to me, though, is that her young protagonists are capable of the truly nuanced insight that is so often missing in writing for children. Kids comprehend more than we adults realise, and Diana’s young heroes exemplify this startling awareness of the world of adult manipulations and schemes in a way that is utterly realistic and essential to the creation of a strong child protagonist. I also appreciate the generous number of talking cats that appear in her novels. You could safely pick up any of Diana’s books and be in for a magical time, but if you’re looking for a place to start, consider the books set in the Chrestomanci world (my favourite is The Lives of Christopher Chant), or Howl’s Moving Castle. Perfect for clever middle to upper primary readers, and grown ups who may have forgotten how to exercise their magical abilities.


Something for older readers, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. This is going to turn into another gushing rhapsody, because I love Maggie Stiefvater even more than I love Diana Wynne Jones. Look out! Once again, you could safely pick up any of Maggie’s books and be in for a transformative read, but for this Christmas, I’ll be focusing on her newest series, The Raven Cycle, and its first book, The Raven Boys. Set in a small Virginia town, The Raven Boys proposes that ancient magic and dark power may lurk beneath the most apparently safe and suburban setting. Transposing Arthurian legends into a contemporary American setting may sound far-fetched, but Maggie pulls it off with her extensive knowledge of myth and folklore, and her ability to create truly three dimensional characters, in a truly three dimensional setting that seethes with fragmented familial bonds, imbedded class privilege, adolescent rage, and dangerous, magical possibilities. Also, lots of sexy filthy muscle cars. Are you hooked yet? If not, look only to her writing. No one, no one, writes so lyrically for teenagers as Maggie Stiefvater (in fact, just this week I had a customer say that since her daughter started reading Maggie’s work, her english marks had vastly improved. It’s even educational!). You’ll become so lost in her beautiful prose that you’ll be carried away and practically eaten by goblins before you know it. This one is definitely for the older readers, teenagers and up.

As a children’s bookseller, I always have an eye out for alphabet books that aren’t completely lame, and they can be few and far between. Alphabetical Sydney by Antonia Pesenti and Hilary Bell is pretty much, in my opinion, the ultimate ABC book – beautiful art, an interesting theme, enough text to keep the grown ups interested on the 20th read-through, and, as you’d hope, all twenty-six letters in their correct order. This is so much more than an alphabet primer, though. As a born and raised Sydneysider, I’m pleased to say that finally, finally a book for children has come along that really captures my city, from the dazzling harbour that is internationally renowned, to the mouldy terraces that most of us Inner Westies actually reside in. Cheeky, fun and affectionate in its treatment of the city, it has the jacarandas and the yum cha, the endless renovations and the bats. My very favourite page has to be P is for Parramatta Road, about a Sydney institution that will never make Lonely Planet’s list of must-see Sydney sights, but this smoggy, traffic-heavy artery and the sometimes frankly weird businesses that line it is a fact of life in Sydney, a constant and recognisable image that is no less a part of the city than Bondi Icebergs or the Manly ferry. This is the essence of Sydney, and a great gift for visitors and Sydney dwellers, big people and little people alike.


And finally, the sweetest, funniest, and most informative book I’ve read all year, Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather. The pigeon perspective is not given a lot of air time, and though I would gladly trade in all Australia’s pigeons for that other maligned urban pest, the grey squirrel (or a squirrel of any other colour – red, black, whatever – Australia’s delicate island ecosystem would be cursing my name, but you can’t deny the cuteness of squirrels), I do think pigeons are probably more switched on, particularly when it comes to the subtleties of the built environment, than we give them credit for. This wonderful book sets to out to argue nothing less, introducing readers to some of world’s most interesting architectural marvels as seen by the birds who dwell on and around their walls. To pigeons, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is the Silver Squiggle (and isn’t it?), the Colosseum the Murder Ring, and, most fittingly, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is the Forest of Dreams. Educational but never dry, Architecture According to Pigeons will make you open your eyes to the city around you, and may even leave you feeling a little more tender towards those pesky grey birds. An interesting read for the 7-ish and up crowd.

With so many wonderful children’s books out there, War and Peace hardly stands a chance! We should occasionally read something grown up, though, so do come back in a couple of weeks’ time for my picks of the year for the big people in your life. My all-time favourite fiction writer has a new book out this Christmas, so it promises to be an epic, adjective-heavy post!