Spurred on by the dubious pastime of snooping at others’ shelves on Zoom, physical books are back in. Plus, they’re the perfect shape for gift-wrapping and can fit through letterboxes, in handbags and on a side table. If you’re tearing your hair out over presents for the festive season, stress no more – I’ve lined up my go-to recommendations. They are intellectual, psychological, and all very much worth reading. *Your tastes, and those of your nearest and dearest, may vary.
For the curious little mind: Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism (and sequels) by Georgia Byng
Some of the best discoveries happen in libraries. That’s certainly true for dejected orphan Molly Moon, who finds an ancient guide to hypnotism stowed away in her local hiding-place. Absorbing its skills and practicing on her enemies (including a pug dog called Petula), Molly leaves her horrible orphanage to pursue fame and fortune in New York City – but starts to find herself in deep trouble. Her dazzling secret might just cause more problems than it can solve…
With its eye-catching cover designs and quirky writing, this series is a hidden gem of children’s fiction. Far from being superficial, real depth and emotion have gone into the stories and world-building. An independent film adaptation was released in 2015, and author Georgia Byng (who thankfully retained a large amount of creative control over the film) read the first book on YouTube in 2020. Buy the first book here
For passing on a classic: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
In the English-speaking world this shouldn’t need any introduction, but to recap: an elusive legendary confectionery maker offers a tour of his factory to the holders of five golden tickets, which are hidden in chocolate bars around the world. Four of the eventual winners are spoilt children with unhealthy habits (think incessant eating, gum-chewing, watching violent TV), while timid Charlie Bucket has nothing – apart from a good heart.
Famously both sweet and sour, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has just kept enchanting people, with two films, a West End production, an opera and a theme park ride to its name. Netflix has just acquired the rights to produce a fresh pantheon of Roald Dahl adaptations, so now’s the perfect time to get to know the originals. Buy here
For those who ‘feel different’: Hollow Earth (and sequels) by John and Carole Barrowman
John Barrowman, of Doctor Who and Torchwood fame, has written books with his sister! The Hollow Earth series isn’t related to the above TV shows, although it does involve some time-travelling antics. Employing wonderful historical Scottish scenery, which becomes more relevant as events progress, this is comfort reading for young (or not-young) people who feel different, misunderstood or pejoratively ‘weird’. Teenage twins Matt and Em Calder are supernaturally gifted artists – whatever they create can come to life. They’re at the forefront of a bloodline called Animare, who keep themselves secret due to the dangerous implications of their powers.
Here we have a coming-of-age story without aliens, in-your-face romance or flawless, unrelatable people. It’s clearly been researched down to the fine details and is all the richer for it, even to sciencey types like me who shouldn’t be near a paintbrush. The Hollow Earth series is also laudable for a main character being deaf and almost exclusively signing – a concept that is refreshingly normalised and not portrayed as burdensome. Buy the first book here
For horror fans wanting to try something new: Dancing Jax (and sequels) by Robin Jarvis
Just outside the sleepy town of Felixstowe stands a crumbling house. When a group of casual delinquents arrives to loot it, they find crates and crates of a strange old children’s book. It’s full of stories about knights and goblins, kings, queens and jacks – but this is no fairytale. The gang’s leader suddenly becomes obsessed with it, and soon the book’s sinister, seductive power begins to spread, corrupting all who read or hear its words. What on earth is happening, and can a maths teacher called Martin get to the bottom of it?
Author Robin Jarvis’ name might sound familiar; prior to 2011 he spooked 90s kids with The Deptford Mice and Tales from the Wyrd Museum. Much like its fictional namesake, discretion is advised for this young adult trilogy, which combines dark fantasy with modern horror and brutal social commentary. To say any more would be spoiling the many nail-biting twists! Buy the first book here
For those who think they’re woke: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
This definitive cornerstone of dystopian fiction is often referenced – it introduced to the Anglophone psyche concepts such as ‘thoughtcrime’, the Thought Police, ‘memory holes’ and ‘goodthink’ (sometimes misreferred to as ‘groupthink’). Nineteen Eighty-Four follows government worker Winston Smith as he lives out a glum existence in a dilapidated London. History is frequently rewritten, provisions are harshly rationed and everyone is watched by the seemingly omnipresent ‘Big Brother’.
People who want to say they read ‘the classics’, but don’t have the time or patience for the likes of Dickens, are the perfect recipients of this book. No activist’s bookshelf should be without it. Buy here
For dreaming of a zen Christmas: The Little Book of Mindfulness by Dr Patrizia Collard
This store of wisdom in a pastel shell was introduced to me by a therapist, and a couple of years later I picked up my own copy. It holds a plentitude of easy, no-cost exercises that can relax your muscles, soothe your mind and get you in tune with inner and outer nature.
Suitable for anyone, this book isn’t aligned with a specific philosophy or theraputic system, but its thoughtful contents promote universally-accessible holistic wellbeing. Buy here
For the relatives who need a hint: Kindness: A Pocket Guide by Sebastian Bóo
And finally, a shout-out for a book I’ve helped bring to life! Kindness: A Pocket Guide is a plain-English exploration of the scientific benefits of kindness. The author, a doctoral researcher and wellbeing trainer, has “waded through hundreds of academic papers, read tens of books and attended numerous conferences so that you do not have to”. Its twelve short chapters extol the data-backed powers of kindness as applied to physical and mental health, the workplace, education, and even the halls of political power – all of which contribute to the wider world, for better or worse.
Ideal for students, business leaders and everyone in between, Kindness: A Pocket Guide has global ambitions: German, French and other language versions will be dropping soon. This book probably won’t change the cousin who always gives you tacky Christmas T-shirts, but it may spark conversation – which can be one of the most valuable gifts of all. Buy here
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