With Christmas just over 3 weeks away, we thought we’d share some recommendations of recent reads you might like to buy as presents! There’ll be 4 parts to this gift guide, with 6 books in each, coming over the next week or so.
For people wanting to read about brilliant heroines
The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, illustrated by Gelrev Ongbico is a book for anyone aged 9 to 90+ who loves thrilling adventures, brilliant settings and exquisite prose. Rundell’s writing style has always been superb – second book Rooftoppers is one of my favourites for years – but this is her best yet, while the decision by Bloomsbury to pair her with illustrator Gelrev Ongbico definitely pays off – his beautiful drawings add a lot to Rundell’s outstanding story. The tale of a young girl in Tsarist Russia who sets out, alongside a pack of three wolves, to rescue her imprisoned mother, I was expecting this to be exciting and wonderfully written. It doesn’t disappoint on either account! What I wasn’t expecting was the humour that is in the book – despite the terrible situation Feo is in, her incredible spirit and relationship with the wolves, and her new friend Ilya, had lots of moments that made me smile.
Gypsy Girl by Kathryn James – Author Kathryn James, who created another truly memorable heroine in her Mist and Frost books, turns away from the faerie folk and into contemporary England here. She writes about Sammy-Jo, a Romany heroine, and it’s clear from the book and from interviews with her that she’s drawing on knowledge gained through many years of working with Romany children. (There’s an especially interesting one here in which she talks about criticism of the title.) Fighter Sammy-Jo, who competes in underground competitions run by shady organisers, is a wonderful lead – tough, brave, and hugely loyal to her family. I enjoyed the potential relationship between her and rich boy Gregory, while the climax as she gets to the bottom of a mystery involving a landowner who wants to kick her family off his field is outstanding.
For teenage feminists (girls AND boys)
Asking For It by Louise O’Neill – Louise O’Neill’s brutal Only Ever Yours, winner of the inaugural YA Book Prize, was a harsh, bleak, and completely uncompromising dystopian. Somehow, this contemporary novel set in Ireland seems to be even darker – but like her debut, it’s a ferocious and important read for older teens. Lead character Emma falls victim to horrific abuse from a group of popular boys while drunk at a party, and doesn’t even remember what happened when she awakes – until the photos spreading like wildfire via social media bring things back to her. This is all too horribly believable, in the wake of Steubenville, as we see the town rally around the abusers, beloved for their sporting prowess, rather than Emma. There are rays of hope – I loved Emma’s supportive brother – but the vast majority of this one will have you screaming in fury at just how messed up people’s priorities can be, and how hard it is for young women to be believed. I don’t especially like the idea of books that people SHOULD read; it seems unnecessarily prescriptive. That said, the more teens who read this one, the brighter the future will be, I think. If you’re looking for a cheery Christmas read, steer clear, obviously – but it’s a book that will stay with teen and adult readers for a long, long time.
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge– Having somehow not got around to Frances Hardinge’s earlier books, this took me completely by surprise despite the mountains of glowing recommendations I’d had for her writing. It’s a story about the strength of women, but at a time when the term ‘strong female character’ often has people rolling their eyes as it can sound like everyone should be Katniss Everdeen, The Lie Tree is wonderful at showing several women who have a lot of strength in very different ways. I love that all of the characters are also completely flawed as well, and their strengths, weaknesses and personalities make them hugely interesting to read about. A wonderfully portrayed setting, seriously creepy atmosphere, and some incredible twists and turns make this a truly outstanding novel.
For the young mystery lover
There were two releases in Robin Stevens’s hugely popular Murder Most Unladylike series this year, both of which are excellent reads. Arsenic For Tea takes place in Detective Society president Daisy’s family’s country home, while First Class Murder sees Daisy and narrator Hazel accompany Hazel’s father on the Orient Express. I love the development of Daisy as a character over the first three books of this fabulous series, so while both would be entertaining reads as stand-alones, I’d definitely recommend you getting first book Murder Most Unladylike, set in Deepdean School, which tells how the society solve their first case, in addition to these two. Stevens really brings England of the time to life perfectly – including perceptive looks at the casual racism Hazel suffers – while the mysteries are brilliantly plotted.
There have been so many superb mysteries for this age range that there are lots I could have chosen in this category – I want to give a special mention to Elen Caldecott’s contemporary Marsh Road Mysteries series, Julie Berry’s incredibly funny historical story The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, and Katherine Woodfine’s wonderful Edwardian debut The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow. Nudging all of them out to take my second pick, though, is House of Eyes by Patricia Elliott, first in the Connie Carew series. Connie is a child living with her aunts and uncle in South Kensington in 1909. An orphan, she is keen to become an anthropologist when she grows up. When a mysterious girl claiming to be her cousin – long thought dead – turns up, Connie decides to try and answer the question of the stranger’s identity. While most of the other recent stories in this genre feature groups or duos of detectives, this stands out as Connie is very much the lead character – yes, various people help her at points, but there’s no question that she’s the person striking out to solve the mystery by herself. It’s another wonderfully well-plotted book, as well!