Ah, Christmas – for some, a time of gift-giving, awkward family gatherings and over-zealous consumption of rum balls; for booksellers, a time to weep silent tears of stress and experience the irrational but persistent fear of being buried alive beneath boxes of the latest Stephen Fry memoir.
But despite the towering piles of new stock to receive, ever-diminishing shelf space on the shop floor and that occasional customer who wants you to individually wrap all eight of the books they’ve just bought, Christmas delivers its own special reward for booksellers. The final few months of the year are when publishers generally release their most anticipated titles, and 2014 has an impressive line-up, from inventive fiction by emerging and established authors to quirky non-fiction that’s as entertaining as it is enlightening. For my final books column this year, I’ve chosen six new releases that I’d be only too happy to discover waiting for me beneath the tree on the 25th (or that I’ll be quietly sliding beneath someone else’s tree).
One novel that nearly all of my bookselling colleagues have been talking about lately is John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, a startlingly original and cleverly constructed tale about Sean, a reclusive man who suffered a disfiguring injury at 17 and now lives almost entirely inside his own head, creating role-playing games for strangers. But imagination inevitably collides with reality, taking Sean back through memories of his childhood, his creation of a game called Trace Italian and a recent incident involving two of the game’s teenage players – recollections that ultimately lead us to the terrible event that caused Sean’s injury and shaped the rest of his life.
If you prefer your festive season reading to have less intensity and more whimsy, I’d suggest a trip to Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library, published in English for the first time in an edition that’s strikingly illustrated by Chip Kidd. This short but surreal story details a boy’s visit to his local library, where a simple request about books on the subject of tax collection in the Ottoman Empire leads to underground imprisonment, a sheep man who makes delicious doughnuts and a mysterious mute girl. It’s the kind of plot that only Murakami could pull off, and he does so here with his usual enigmatic and deadpan style.
Closer to home, talented Australian writer Alice Pung has just released her first YA novel: Laurinda is a sharply observed coming-of-age tale about 15-year-old Lucy Lam, who wins a scholarship to a prestigious private girls’ school called Laurinda. In this strange new world of privilege and playground politics – a world of dry clean-only blazers, Country Road leisurewear, sandstone buildings and a powerful trio of popular girls known collectively as The Cabinet – Lucy struggles to find a place for herself. I’m a sucker for a school story, and Laurinda is a standout example – Pung’s droll wit and astute perceptions make this a compelling read for teens and adults alike.
In between all this fiction reading, I’ve been assiduously making a mental list of intriguing non-fiction titles that are hitting shelves over Christmas – fittingly, one of them is Lists of Note by Shaun Usher. The follow-up to last year’s hugely successful Letters of Note, this latest volume is exactly what it sounds like: an artfully curated and designed collection of lists, from Marilyn Monroe’s New Year’s resolutions (surprisingly moving) to a shopping list by a tenth century Tibetan monk (an unsurprisingly far cry from the contents of your Coles trolley). It’s not only the ultimate gift for list obsessives such as myself, but a lovely vindication of why we’re compelled to keep a physical record of our reminders, desires and intentions.
If you’d like more than just a fleeting glimpse into someone else’s life, Vivienne Westwood’s authorised self-titled biography (as told to, and written by, Ian Kelly) offers some fascinating insights. Westwood apparently wrote her first memoir when she was still in school; decades later, after she helped shape Britain’s punk movement with her Sex boutique on London’s King’s Road in the 1970s and embarked on a legendary fashion career, she still has plenty more to say, and her story is as colourful and outrageous as her style. As with any authorised celebrity biography, I’m sure there are a few choice elisions here (Westwood’s previous attempt to have an authorised biography published fell apart when the biographer didn’t want Westwood to vet the manuscript); nonetheless, Kelly paints a vivid portrait of a true fashion rebel.
If you’d rather skip the people and get straight to the clothes, lose yourself in the glossy pages of Nicky Albrechsten’s mesmerising Vintage Fashion Complete, a compendium of twentieth century style split into three sections: decades, elements and hallmarks. Alongside stunning photographs and illustrations of various vintage garments and icons, the book also includes practical advice about how to care for your vintage wares, giving you an excellent reason to buy more of them (and this book).
Whether you’ll be buying Christmas gifts this December or simply want to stock up on some well-deserved summer reading, pay your local independent bookshop a visit. We might be inwardly crying about how we’re going to fit everything on the shelves or quietly nursing a Stephen Fry memoir-related injury (yes, he does have a new one out), but we always love to see people buying books – even when you want us to individually wrap them all for you.