Author of Love Marriage (Virago)
I’ll be giving people The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois (Fourth Estate), an astounding debut by the poet and essayist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. It tells the story of young African American woman Ailey and her family history over an epic sweep of two centuries. It’s a complex, multilayered examination of the tangled and often brutal relationships between African, Indigenous and European peoples that casts light on the deep connections between the present and the past. It’s an emotional rollercoaster too. Also, Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (Tilted Axis), which deservedly won the International Booker prize this year. The story of an 80-year-old widow, Ma, who travels across India to Pakistan in a journey that awakens many memories and wounds, both personal and historical, it’s beautiful, lyrical, fiercely feminist and often unexpectedly funny. The book I’d like to receive is Oleander, Jacaranda (Penguin) by Penelope Lively, her memoir of childhood in Egypt. I recently read Moon Tiger and her evocations of Cairo and the desert in that novel made me thirst for more.
Booker prize winner for The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Sort of Books)
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Penguin) is moving, melancholy and unexpectedly fun. I was surprised by the voices, enthralled by the characters and smitten with the writing. It takes a class act to find comedy, thrills and pathos in a police procedural about lynching and castration. Percival Everett achieves this in The Trees (Influx Press) and makes you giggle and grimace on this uncomfortable but weirdly enjoyable ride. For myself, I would like Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut (Centenary Edition, Vintage). I’ve been saving Vonnegut’s debut for when I’d finished the rest of the master’s works. Looks like I’ve made it just in time for what would have been the great man’s 100th birthday. Let’s hope Santa has one more gift for me this year.
Author of Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (Bodley Head)
As an historian, I find NoViolet Bulawayo’s writing profoundly salient and her novel Glory (Chatto and Windus) is a masterpiece for our times. Gripping and exhilarating, it speaks to the history of colonialism, authoritarian rule, the tumult of revolution and the elusive hope for a better tomorrow. For the sheer brilliance of her writing and storytelling, Deborah Cohen’s Last Call at the Hotel Imperial (William Collins) also tops my gift list, entwining collective biography with the urgency of journalism’s interwar critiques to produce a riveting and deeply thought-provoking read. David Diop’s novella, At Night All Blood Is Black (Pushkin Press) – winner of last year’s International Booker prize – is at the top of my list for a stocking filler.
Author of Lessons in Chemistry (Doubleday)
In The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk (Doubleday) a six-year-old suffers a terrible accident, leaving him nearly blind. But with darkness comes unexpected light: now Zachary can see the world in a more profound way. Prepare to fall in love with the characters and the writing. Borough Market:The Knowledge by Angela Clutton (Hodder) is a beautiful cookbook that brings London’s iconic Borough Market to life while providing the kind of insider information that means I may finally shuck an oyster without slicing my hand. Creative, inspiring, smart. For myself, I’d love Bird By Bird by Anne Lamont (Canongate), a generous and funny guide to writing and life.
Author of The Song of the Cell (Bodley Head)
The Candy House by Jennifer Egan (Corsair) was narratively brilliant and I’ll be pressing it on everyone I know. It takes side characters from her earlier novel A Visit from the Goon Squad and turns them into full characters in a way that I found fascinating. I really liked Ed Yong’s book, An Immense World (Bodley Head). It’s about animal perception and how there’s a whole universe of sensations that we as humans don’t get access to. Atul Gawande is a great inspiration and I’d like to get Being Mortal (Profile), which is a book about how we die and how the medical and social concerns about how people die are different from the individual concerns of those people.
Author of Best of Friends (Bloomsbury)
Top of my list is The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka (Sort of Books). We’ve had to wait these many years for a novel that gives us anything like the brilliant, bawdy, tragic, hilarious voice of Karunatilaka’s debut, Chinaman. In his Booker-winning latest, he has amped up all the characteristics of his debut to produce a truly astonishing piece of fiction. We are so lucky to live while Ali Smith is writing her novels and Companion Piece (Hamish Hamilton) is yet another reminder of her exceptional ability to be wise, funny, playful, serious, all in the same moment. The book I’d like to get in my stocking is TheTransit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (Virago). Why have I never read this? So many people I trust have said I must.
Author of Still Life (Fourth Estate)
I’ll be gifting Melissa Thompson’s Motherland: A Jamaican Cookbook (Bloomsbury). Visually stunning with wonderful writing and recipes, it’s a love song to the people, food and history of Jamaica and is sure to be a classic. Also, the biography of the travel writer and transgender pioneer Jan Morris, Life from Both Sides, written by Paul Clements (Scribe). I have long been an admirer of Morris’s work, especially her beautiful Venice. In return I would like Norman Bryson’s Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Reaktion). I leant my copy to someone and never got it back. Of course I didn’t. It’s superb.
Observer writer and critic
In our age of anger, it’s essential to keep in mind that life is also a comedy. No writer captures that fact better than Marina Hyde. The collected columns in What Just Happened?! (Guardian Faber) are the definitive user’s guide to post-Brexit Britain. Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land (Faber), meanwhile, his “biography” of TS Eliot’s poem, is, among many other brilliances, a quest to locate the authentic origin of modern anxieties in the post-pandemic London of a century ago. On the basis that anything he writes makes me feel instantly wiser, the book I’d most like to receive is Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958 (Head of Zeus).
Author of The Marriage Portrait (Tinder Press)
Fiction from Ireland had a particularly strong year in 2022, spearheaded by the peerless Claire Keegan. I’ll be giving Donal Ryan’s achingly beautiful The Queen of Dirt Island (Doubleday), which traces the lives of three women in a small town, to many lucky recipients this Christmas. And I’ll also be wrapping up some copies of Kit de Waal’s memoir, Without Warning and Only Sometimes (Tinder Press), which is as startling and fabulous as its title. My paperback of Alice Walker’s masterpiece The Color Purple (Orion) has been reread so many times that it’s fallen apart at the spine, so I’m hoping someone might give me a new one; either that or a copy of Katherine Rundell’s exquisite and timely The Golden Mole (Faber).
Author of Nightcrawling (Bloomsbury)
Poetry captures such strong and tender emotion with full force despite its sparing use of words, making it perfect for this time of year when daylight is shorter and many of us have an increasing tendency towards deep feelings heightened by the holidays and more time spent indoors. I adored Alive at the End of the World by Saeed Jones (Coffee House Press), which was sharp, darkly funny and real. His grounding in the body always resonates for me as well as his meditations on collective grief. Ocean Vuong, one of my favourite contemporary poets, expanded his body of work beautifully in Time Is a Mother (Jonathan Cape), contemplating similar themes of grief as Jones in a vastly different and nonetheless beautiful and heartbreaking manner. I’ve been meaning to read Fruit of theDrunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (Anchor Books) for a while so I would love to find that under the tree.
Author of Stone Blind (Mantle)
I’ll be giving Jonathan Coe’s new novel, Bournville (Viking), to all my relatives. Coe was already Birmingham’s greatest chronicler, even before he set another masterpiece in the exact corner of the city where I grew up. Kate Atkinson can’t write a bad book and Shrines of Gaiety (Doubleday) is both a gorgeous object and an incredible, immersive trawl through seedy London nightlife in 1926. I’m hoping to get a copy of Anil Seth’s Being You (Faber). Our perception of reality is a controlled hallucination? We are sad because we perceive ourselves to be crying? This could damage my goth credentials no end.
Author (with Roger Robinson) of Home Is Not a Place (William Collins)
Forget Dickens this Christmas and try High John the Conquerer by Tariq Goddard (Repeater Books), which embodies the best of what the avant garde Repeater stands for, blending working-class politics with experimental fiction and hauntological analysis. In nonfiction, Dorthe Nors’s A Line in the World (Pushkin Press) is the perfect winter read, making a virtue of dark nights and frost-bitten winds on the author’s native North Sea coast. Read it in bed with a glass of red. I’d like to receive a photobook; Amazonia by George Love and Claudia Andujar. Love, an African American photographer who moved to Brazil in the 60s, was one of the great underrated photographers and most of his work is out of print. You could buy the original version for me for about $3,000, but rumour has it Delpire & Co is producing a facsimile in time for Santa.
Observer writer and critic
I loved Seán Hewitt’s moving memoir, All Down Darkness Wide (Jonathan Cape), which describes growing up gay in Liverpool within a Catholic family and which gives an extraordinarily sensitive, insightful account of his love affair with someone suffering clinical depression while at the same time keeping faith with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry – the mind’s mountains scaled. [To] the Last [Be] Human by Jorie Graham (Carcanet) is another revelation – pioneering poetry that examines what it is to be alive on our beloved and imperilled planet. I’m hoping for Elizabeth Hardwick’s 1979 novel Sleepless Nights (Faber) in my stocking – no matter how wakeful her scintillating prose.
Graeme Macrae Burnet
Author of Case Study (Saraband)
I’ll be gifting two books that challenge perceptions of very different situations: Philip Oltermann’s short and surprising The Stasi Poetry Circle (Faber) manages to deliver hefty thoughts on how folk operate within a totalitarian regime and why we write poetry. Then Chitra Ramaswamy’s wonderful, insightful Homelands (Canongate), the story of her friendship with Henry Wuga, a former German teenage refugee to Britain – a book that feels very pertinent to the world we now find ourselves in. And for myself? I will read any scrap that Annie Ernaux, overdue winner of this year’s Nobel prize, writes, so a copy of Getting Lost (Fitzcarraldo), translated by Alison L Strayer), s’il vous plaît.
Author of Great Circle (Penguin)
Horse by Geraldine Brooks (Little, Brown) is emotional but not torturous. In telling the story of an antebellum racehorse, she balances two compelling timelines and explores the rotten legacy of American slavery. It richly transcends the category of “for horse lovers”. Also, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (Chatto & Windus) by Gabrielle Zevin. It feels right that the best video game novel out there is by a woman. Her story about the decades-long friendship and partnership between video game designers Sam and Sadie gets at so much about work, love and storytelling. It’s a book that spawns great conversations. For myself, I’d like The Forsyte Saga (Complete) by John Galsworthy (Benediction Classics). I’ve been in a reading drought, and for some reason I feel the solution might be a huge, old-fashioned family epic. All I want for Christmas is drama and gossip.
Author of Nudibranch (Dialogue)
I’d like to give Tade Thompson’s brilliant, darkly comic novella Jackdaw (Cheerio), in which a psychiatrist hired to write about Francis Bacon becomes enmeshed with the artist’s world. Also, Kate Mosse’s Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries (Mantle), an exuberant, vital celebration on the contributions of trailblazing women around the globe. In my stocking I would like Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Serpent’s Tail). The story of the daughter of a physician seeking what freedom means in a country dealing with the ramifications of slavery after the civil war sounds fascinating.
Author of Molly & the Captain (Abacus)
Vladimir by Julia May Jonas (Picador) is great nasty fun, an American campus novel whose fiftysomething narrator has the hots for a new junior prof. She also has a husband facing sexual misconduct charges. Sit back and watch the sparks fly. Bad Relations by Cressida Connolly (Viking) is her best novel yet; a haunting story of a family blighted by bereavement, stretching from the Crimean war to the present. I have loved the Trigan Empire comic strip since I first encountered it in Look and Learn magazine as a boy, bewitched by the magnificent artwork of Don Lawrence (1928-2003). Hope to find The Trigan Empire Volume III (Rebellion) in my Christmas stocking.
Women’s prize winner for The Book of Form and Emptiness (Canongate)
My writerly friends will be getting George Saunders’s Liberation Day (Bloomsbury), so we can laugh, and wince, and weep, and then pore over his sentences to see how he does it. My husband will be getting Thomas Piketty’s A Brief History of Equality (Harvard University Press), which I’ll read when he’s done. Living in the US, we both need some wilful European optimism for the future. The present I’d like to get is Marianne Wiggins’s 2007 novel The Shadow Catcher (Simon & Schuster). I fell in love with her writing in her brilliant new novel, Properties of Thirst (Simon & Schuster), and now I’m catching up on her backlist. Such a pleasure.
Observer writer and critic
I’ll be wrapping copies of Matt Rowland Hill’s compulsive heroin memoir Original Sins (Chatto & Windus) and Sam Knight’s spooky second-sight study The Premonitions Bureau (Faber), because I’m eager for arguments about what exactly is going on in them. Should there be transatlantic elves listening, I’d like anything by Eugene Marten, an American author seemingly unpublished in the UK. A review from the US calls his fifth book, Pure Life (Strange Light), “a sports novel that’s also a thriller and an existential horror story”. Catnip.
Author of Birnam Wood (published by Granta in March 2023)
I was blown away by Rachel Aviv’s Strangers to Ourselves: Stories of Unsettled Minds (Harvill Secker), a radically human book that led me not to answers, but to better questions, about the infinite contingencies of mental “health”. Simon Kuper’s Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK (Profile) was no less mind-opening, particularly on the influence of the Oxford Union in fostering a culture of glibness and disloyalty where members are trained to speak with authority but without knowledge. For myself, I’d love any Anita Brookner novel that I haven’t yet read.
Bret Easton Ellis
Author of The Shards (published by Swift in January 2023)
I like Quentin Tarantino but didn’t expect to like his film criticism – yet I really loved Cinema Speculation (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). AM Homes’s The Unfolding (Granta) is the best book she’s published: for her to get in the shoes of its main character was a remarkable act of sympathetic imagination. And if anyone can find a copy, I’d like Blue Pages, a 1979 novel by the screenwriter Eleanor Perry, about her divorce from the director Frank Perry, who was big in the 60s and 70s. She died in 1981; it’s out of print and exorbitantly expensive as a used book.
Author of Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North (Doubleday)
Two books I am giving everyone this year are Haven by Emma Donoghue (Picador) and Damian Dibben’s The Colour Storm (Michael Joseph). Haven is a beautiful, bold blaze of a book about three men in seventh-century Ireland surviving on an island as they build a monastery. Psychologically complex, it is the most powerful meditation on isolation, true fraternity, fanaticism and man’s place in the natural world. The Colour Storm is a completely different cup of tea. Set in 16th-century Venice, it sees the world’s most famous painters compete to win the greatest commission of their lives while the plague moves ever closer. It has the pace of a thriller and the riches of a Renaissance painting. The book I would love to find in my stocking is my old copy of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (Faber). I can’t find it anywhere.
Author of We Danced on Our Desks (Mensch)
I’ll be giving The Reign, Matthew Engel’s chronicle of Elizabeth II’s 70 (mostly) glorious years, which has at least one priceless detail per page. During the reign of her father George VI, for example, toilet paper throughout Whitehall had been stamped “On His Majesty’s Service”, but with the young Queen’s accession changing the pronoun was thought too indelicate; instead, every sheet was stamped “Government Property”. Also, French Braid by Anne Tyler, America’s Jane Austen. I’d love someone to gift me Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse by Patrick Hamilton, the inimitably noir British novelist and playwright who bequeathed us the verb “to gaslight”.
Observer writer and critic
Switch on the news this past year and you’ll likely have felt the need for courage. Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts (Abacus) has it in abundance. It’s a dystopian tale of resistance, hope and art, whose boy hero turns detective to track down his missing mother. His superpower? The stories she filled him with before vanishing. For anyone curious about how an author is made, Howard Jacobson spills the beans in Mother’s Boy: A Writer’s Beginnings (Cape). Driven by comedic pathos and electrifying inquisitiveness, it’s a memoir that thrums with “word music”. Speaking of which, I make and break an annual vow to read more poetry. Intent on changing that, I shall be wishing for Clive James’s posthumous The Fire of Joy: Roughly 80 Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud (Picador).
Caleb Azumah Nelson
Author of Open Water (Penguin)
I would gift Candice Carty-Williams’s People Person (Trapeze) this Christmas, a novel I loved so much I heavily procrastinated over my own writing to finish reading it. It’s a beautiful and humorous portrait of five siblings and the complexities of family relationships. I would also give The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (One), a collection of short stories I’ve been talking about all year. Warm and wise, each of Philyaw’s stories are a gift, equal parts tender and funny. I would love to receive Intimacies by Katie Kitamura (Vintage). Deft and sharply written, it’s one of my favourite novels of the past few years.
Karen Joy Fowler
Author of Booth (Serpent’s Tail)
In Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (Chatto & Windus) we meet the central characters as children in a hospital gaming room. They reconnect in college to create their own highly successful game. But most of the story is about what happens next as their relationship resets and resets over the years. Brilliant. Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra (John Murray) is set just before the second world war. A young woman escapes from Italy to Hollywood, leaving her father behind. The story moves between the real war and the better version Hollywood is busy creating to inspire the people in America. Sometimes tragic, often hilarious. For my stocking: the nonfiction Arabia Felix by Thorkild Hansen (NYRB), translated by James and Kathleen McFarlane. In 1761, six men travel to Yemen on a scientific expedition from which only one returns.
Frans de Waal
Author of Different: What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender (Granta)
I’d choose to give Chimpanzee Memoirs, edited by Stephen Ross and Lydia Hopper (Columbia University Press), in which fellow primatologists convey the joy and challenge of working with animals as intelligent as chimpanzees. Then there is Bitch by Lucy Cooke (Doubleday), which provocatively and in great depth reminds us of the sexuality of the female animal.A 1974 book I’d like to receive and (re)read is Jan Morris’s Conundrum (Faber) with its famous opening sentence: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realised that I had been born into the wrong body.” A must for those who pooh-pooh transgender identity.
Observer writer and critic
Presents should spark joy, and no book I came across this year gave me more of that than Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber). I’ve read it three times – it won the Baillie Gifford prize 2022, of which I was a judge – and on each occasion, I thrilled to it more. Put the word biography from your mind. It isn’t only about one man’s life; it is about sex and the body, poetry and the power of the imagination, and it will ravish you like a lover. Also joyful, in a different way, is Cooking by Jeremy Lee (Fourth Estate). To read his recipes for baked salsify, chicken pie and walnut cake is to be happy, let alone to make them. In my stocking, I’d like to find a copy of Alethea Hayter’s 1965 classic A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846, which is all about what the Brownings, Dickens, Carlyle and co got up to in a heatwave, and is newly reissued by Faber.
Author of A Fortunate Woman (Picador)
I will be giving everyone Will Ashon’s The Passengers (Faber), a book that’s more like music, a mesmerising polyphony of human voices, their memories, secrets, dreams, hopes and fears, assembled from conversations with a hundred unnamed people from across the UK. Profound, poetic and funny by turns, it is a testament to the power of listening. Deep, attentive listening also underpins Sally Hayden’s My Fourth Time We Drowned (Fourth Estate). A work of blistering investigative journalism, Hayden’s account of the atrocious human cost of European migration policies teems with the voices of the dispossessed and the abused. For myself, having just read the extraordinary, jewel-like meditation on exile, Paradise, by last year’s winner of the Nobel prize in literature, Abdulrazak Gurnah, I’m now eager to dive into his 2001 novel By the Sea (Bloomsbury), the story of a migrant living in an unnamed English seaside town, in some sense picking up where Sally Hayden leaves off.
Author of Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman (Makina)
This year I’m really excited to give Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen (Pushkin Press) to family and friends. It’s an electrifying, genre-breaking mixture of food writing, memoir and philosophy, asking profound questions about desire, community, appetite and the body. I’ll also be giving Ottessa Moshfegh’s strange, disturbingly funny faux-historical novel Lapvona (Jonathan Cape). To my mind, there isn’t a more original, entertaining or innovative novelist working today. I’d like to find Jay Gao’s debut poetry collection, Imperium (Carcanet), in my own stocking. I’ve admired Gao’s expressive and dizzyingly ambitious poetry for a long time, so I can’t wait to read a whole collection from this talented poet.
Author (with Anjana Ahuja) of Spike: The Virus vs The People (Profile)
In a time when many societies and political systems are struggling to deal with the intense challenges of today while preparing and investing for a sustainable and more just future, Gordon Brown raises our eyes to consider what might be possible in Seven Ways to Change the World (Simon & Schuster). He covers a huge range of issues from pandemics to the economy, education, taxation, disarmament, and finally offers the power of hope. The Silk Road and Beyond: Narratives of a Muslim Historian by Iftikhar H Malik (Oxford University Press) is a wonderful series of vibrant, personal stories, across the Silk Road and beyond, a window on an amazing heritage, stretching across central Asia, to Iran, Turkey, southern Europe, Scandinavia, UK and the US. A fascinating and beautiful book. The novel I’d like to receive is Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees (Penguin): storytelling in prose as if in poetry, romance amid conflict and fear, and the impact of suppressed identity trickling down the generations.
Zakiya Dalila Harris,
Author of The Other Black Girl (Bloomsbury)
Kellye Garrett’s Like a Sister (Simon & Schuster) is a twisty whodunnit that follows one black woman’s quest to prove that the death of her estranged half-sister, a partying reality TV star, was not the result of a drug overdose – even though the tabloids say otherwise. Akwaeke Emezi’s You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty (Faber) is brimming with heartbreak, romance and titillating temptation. The prose in this novel is so delicious and so sumptuous, you’ll definitely gobble this up in one sitting. In my stocking I would like Margo Jefferson’s Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir (Granta). After reading Jefferson’s brilliant criticism, On Michael Jackson and her first memoir, Negroland, I can confidently say I’d read anything she writes. Her latest self-reflection on what makes her tick is no exception.
Author of Autobibliography (Swift)
Ten-Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family and the Miracle of Failure by Adelle Stripe and singer Lias Saoudi (White Rabbit) is an intoxicatingly readable book about the cult band, and how transcendent art can emerge from (or in spite of) incomprehensible self-sabotage, utter chaos and extreme interpersonal friction. I know he’ll appreciate the publicity, so I’ll shout out Bob Dylan’s exuberantly fun The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster), which I gulped down along with an associated playlist. In my stocking, I’d like Conversations with Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann (Penguin) in order to be transported to another, impossibly cultured and civilised time – a cheering respite from the terrors of our own.
Winner of Baillie Gifford prize for Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber)
I loved Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury) – witty and painful, and so sharp on the problem of love and politics. I’ll also be giving Greta Thunberg’s Climate Book (Allen Lane) to everyone: for the way it urges us to refuse to acquiesce in the destruction of the living world. It offers real, rich hope: but only if that hope is active. And I would love to be given Hilary Mantel’s Vacant Possession (Harper Perennial). It’s the book of hers I haven’t yet read; the generosity, the shaping intelligence, the moral tenacity and bite of her work are unlike anything else: she was the writer I adored most.