Shelf space

Is there a better Christmas present – for loved ones or yourself – than a great book? Leading authors recommend some of their favourite reads, new and old, which are sure to grace your bookshelf or e-reader

Michelle Green

I was handed a copy of David Constantine’s Under The Dam (Comma) and told: “These stories are like medicine.” This is true. Long after I’d finished reading them they were still in my system doing their work, unlocking thoughts and trails of images. Gorgeous, clever storytelling by a brilliant writer. Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree (Lothian Books) would make an excellent gift for anyone who enjoys playful and intricate images. Layers of newsprint and cogs, sinister fish and generous beasties with taps for heads – Tan creates resonant dreamscapes, and then hangs them all on a small, sweet story about hope.

Michelle Green’s debut collection of short stories, Jebel Marra, will be out in 2013. More info at Photo: Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Sarah Hall

In The Orchard, The Swallows (Faber and Faber) by Peter Hobbs is my favourite piece of fiction this year. Set in the mountains of northern Pakistan, the novel tells the story of love’s duration in the face of corrupt power and brutality. Its narrator, a young man who has suffered 15 years in a squalid prison, returns to his home village, to find his family have left and his father’s orchard, once well tended, now wild and ruined. Fighting illness and despair, he is cared for by a local poet and his daughter, and in their home he begins a letter to the girl he lost his heart to, and freedom for, as a boy. This is a rare, ambitious and above all brave book. Few authors would attempt such a pure and guileless project. Fewer still could produce such a beautiful, tonic read.

Sarah Hall has won the Edge Hill University Short Story Prize 2012 and the Portico Prize for Literature for her collection of short stories The Beautiful Indifference (Faber and Faber)

Sean Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” For antiquity, Virgil’s Aeneid was a game-changer. Robert Fagles’s translation (Viking) brings this masterpiece alive for us today. It is the perfect Christmas gift for yourself or someone you know for whom the spell of ancient Rome remains strong. Many people forget that the Aeneid is where the story of the Trojan Horse is recounted. In fact, it is so full of wisdom that it became an oracle and people consulted its pages at random to foretell the future. Besides, it is a ripping good yarn. I also recommend Stephen Greenblatt’s engaging book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (WW Norton).

Sean Hemingway is the author of The Tomb of Alexander (Arrow) and the editor of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: A Special Edition (William Heinemann)

Patrick Kingsley

Perched among the hills of Andalusia is a little place called Marinaleda. At first glance, it looks like any Spanish town. It has olive trees and whitewashed walls. But the street names are a giveaway. They’re all named after lefties. For Marinaleda is what’s been called a communist utopia. The land is owned collectively by the 2,600 citizens, everyone earns the same, and nearly everyone is in work. And I’m reading about it all in a fascinating e-book by journalist Dan Hancox, Utopia and the Valley of Tears (available from Hancox meets its residents and its eccentric mayor, and positions the town as a beacon of hope in a country otherwise decimated by cuts and unemployment. Gripping and topical.

How to be Danish by Patrick Kingsley is published by Short Books

Stephen May

Nod (Bluemoose) is an amphetamine-fuelled nightmare ride that will leave you breathless – and sleepless. Full of narrative verve and linguistic daring, this book is propulsive, explosive and merciless. In Adrian Barnes (interviewed on page 25) Canada may have found her 21st century John Wyndham.

Stephen May’s Life! Death! Prizes! (Bloomsbury) has been shortlisted for best novel in the Costa Book Awards 2012

Benjamin Myers

The late Ted Lewis is rarely mentioned without the epithet “author of Get Carter” attached to his name – and indeed it was via the film of his novel Jack’s Return Home that I discovered his writing. But his hard-edged noir prose extends into a wider oeuvre that has influenced so many of today’s writers, including the likes of David Peace and Cathi Unsworth. Much of this past year has been spent scouring eBay for secondhand, yellowing copies of his other works as – unbelievably – Lewis remains largely out of print in the UK. My search has led me to the terse, tense G.B.H. and the poignant, coming-of-age rural Lincolnshire novel The Rabbit. Lewis is a master of pace and tension, and his settings transport readers back to a recent northern England of Wimpy bars and stiff whiskies, modernist furnishings and stoic, silent men. A resurgence of his work is surely forthcoming.

Benjamin Myers’s most recent novel Pig Iron is available on Bluemoose Books (

Freya North

How’s this for a hero – a young, geeky scientist! Dr Steven Fisher believes everything can be explained through science – from crying and laughing to falling in love. He’s developing a wonder drug (the possible names for this little pill are hilarious) to cure female sexual dysfunction. Enter Annie – his last case. She’s an English scholar, slightly stroppy, for whom pleasure is to be found between the pages of a book, not between the sheets. Suddenly Dr Fisher’s experiment is thrown into disarray because Annie’s results don’t make sense. Funny and sexy with sparkling prose and wonderful characters – Love And Other Dangerous Chemicals (Corvus) is an original take on what makes lovers tick. To my joy, I’ve discovered Anthony Capella has written many other novels. I couldn’t wait for Santa – I’ve bought them all.

Rumours by Freya North is published by HarperFiction, priced £7.99

Tim Spector

Grimm Tales – Philip Pullman (Penguin). This retelling of the classic tales proves that age is not an impediment to re-acquainting yourself with literary characters from your childhood. Pullman presents the Grimm’s tales with his unique voice and still maintains their characteristic darkness, whilst adding historical context to each story.

The Yellow World – Albert Espinosa (Penguin). The author, who suffered multiple cancers as a child, draws on his experiences in hospital to outline a new philosophy of life. This is born of his bonds with medical staff and fellow patients who provided infectious optimism. Whether it is advice on mourning your losses or taking time to identify your “ yellows” (deep connections), this is life affirming.

Savage Continent – Keith Lowe (Macmillan). By the end of the Second World War 40 million were left dead, a fragile peace reigned yet Europe was ravaged and chaos dominated. The institutions we take for granted did not exist and the continent began a different kind of struggle. Essential reading.

Tim Spector is the author of Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson

Michael Stewart

Pig Iron (Bluemoose) by Benjamin Myers is about the son of a Gypsy bare-knuckle fighter trying to escape his background. I savoured every word of this novel. I loved the character of John-John and his voice. I loved the earthy poetry of the language. I found the plot compelling and the use of alternating first person narrative very well handled. It is that rare book: beautifully written, full of warmth and vitality. I also really enjoyed two new chapbook poetry collections: Breathing Through Our Bones (Smith/Doorstop) by Julie Mellor and Sea Swim (Valley Press) by John Wedgwood Clarke.

Michael Stewart is appearing at Leeds Central Library at 6.30pm on 12 December talking about his novel King Crow

Daniel Trilling

Two provocative books on the recent turmoil in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere: Alain Badiou’s The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings (Verso) is a sharp, concise attempt to find a common thread between the Arab Spring, anti-austerity protests and riots in Paris and London. What we are Fighting for: a Radical Collective Manifesto (Pluto) is a collection of essays inspired by the Occupy movement. “We know what you’re against, but what are you *for*?” has been a common refrain from the media. Here are the beginnings of an answer.

Daniel Trilling’s book Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right is published by Verso

Emma Unsworth

You know what ranks up there as one of the most deceptively easy things to pull off? Top quality romance. In reality it’s tough as nuts: balancing intricate plotting with page-turning momentum, driving recognisable yet intriguing characters towards an ending that is satisfying but not predictable in its details. Mhairi McFarlane’s debut You Had Me At Hello (Avon) does all this deftly, and with such a searing brand of the funny-smarts you’ll want everyone you know to read it (or maybe not, if you want to nick all the jokes and pass them off as your own, cough-cough). Join Manchester journalist Rachel Woodford as she drinks, thinks and swears her way through a re-evaluation of her love life. This is modern romantic comedy at its absolute finest.

Emma Unsworth’s novel Hungry, The Stars And Everything is published by Hidden Gem Press

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