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Five literary festive favourites

Izzy Smith picks out five of the best books to enjoy this Christmas

1.) One Day, David Nicholls

One Day creates possibly the greatest intimacy between reader and characters of any book I’ve read. It is a beautiful and sometimes painful story about the impact that one friendship can have over a lifetime. The novel’s strict structure, showing the same day of the year of two people’s lives over a twenty-year period, allows for incredible emotional realism. Watching characters we come to love (but do not always like) experience joy and disappointment, make horrible and sometimes irrevocable mistakes, and find the entire course of their lives changed by chance occurrences or seemingly minor choices is certainly an emotional rollercoaster. Tears are to be expected. The shifts in perspective between the two protagonists can be frustrating, as we see characters damagingly misunderstand each other. However, they are also often amusing, as characters speculate on the judgments others make about them; then the perspective shifts to reveal what their companions are really thinking. A book to be read in a quiet moment, after the bustle of Christmas has died down.

2.) The Mousehole Cat, Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley

The Mousehole Cat is a wonderful illustrated children’s book about a cat called Mowzer and her human, Tom, who bravely venture out fishing one Christmas during a period of dangerous storms, to save their village from starvation. The book is built around a vibrant contrast between warm descriptions of cosy firesides, community and companionship, and wild elemental ones of the stormy sea, personified as a hunting cat. The illustrations of the swirling sea and mottled clouds forming the pelt of the Great Storm Cat are stunning. The story is told to us through Mowzer’s eyes, which engenders endearingly comical remarks such as “sometimes Mowzer felt that her children had not trained their people properly”. Her attempts to communicate with Tom are heartwarming, “purring as if she would burst to tell him that she loved him”. The Mousehole Cat is all about the importance of community and love. This beautiful story was a big part of my childhood, and would be perfect for calming buzzing children (or adults!) before bed after an exciting Christmas Day.

 3.) And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

A powerful collection of poetry by African American poet, memoirist and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Angelou writes about her experience as an American black woman: about work and the importance of rest, child abuse, ageing, the rhythms, scent and atmosphere of the American South, freedom and slavery. She writes about pain, and conveys a bone-deep weariness, but her poetry advances an addictive kind of unapologetic determination and love of self. You can’t help but relish her confidence, as she declares, “Phenomenal woman, that’s me” or, in the title poem, “You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise,” concluding triumphantly, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” Angelou does an amazing job of drawing the reader in to her experience. Definitely a book to help you retain your sanity when racist or sexist relatives start throwing their weight around over the turkey!

4.) Saffy’s Angel, Hilary McKay

The first in a wonderfully feel-good series about a messy but ultimately happy family. McKay is incredibly skilled at building complex characters, and dynamics between them, while wryly showing us their own, sometimes skewed, self-perception. Although often funny and always warm, it deals with significant issues such as adoption, belonging, disability and isolation, always in a humanising and compassionate way. My favourite character is Caddy, hamster-obsessed, fantastic big sister but terrible driver, who at one point finds herself driving across the country the day after passing her test, on a quest for an object of huge importance to her adopted sister Saffy, with her two youngest siblings in tow:”‘I can only do left turns”; “Wales is left!…It’s left all the way!” Saffy’s Angel is marketed as a children’s book, but the depth of the characters and its gentle humour make it enjoyable for all ages. Perfect to curl up with at a tired moment – perhaps while nursing a New Year’s Day hangover!

 5.) Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is remarkably fun for a novel in which one of the two protagonists has depression. We follow two teenagers who happen to have the same name as they struggle with self-understanding and awareness, managing depression and dealing with love and heartbreak, as well as conflict between the desires to fit in and to stick up for the people and issues you care about. It’s very refreshing to find a novel discussing LGBTQ issues that considers the variety of the community: we are shown an incredibly fabulous camp gay character, but also a gay character dealing with depression who despises the limelight, as well as friendly, politically active and supportive gay characters. The book’s structure, with the two authors each writing from the first person perspective of one Will Grayson and alternating each chapter, keeps the reading experience fresh, and allows for the collision of two quite different worlds. A coming-of-age story perfect for teenagers or nostalgic adults, but particularly important for any LGBTQ people struggling with unaccepting families this Christmas.

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