Life & Style

Once Upon A Christmastime…

A crackling fire and a cracking read: twin treats for the time between Xmas and New Year when short, dark days offer long hours for pleasure on the page. From crime to cookery, young love to Hollywood hedonism, Katie Law selects the books to covet now.
Curated by Katie Law

White Holes: Inside the Horizon by Carlo Rovelli

The Italian theoretical physicist hit the big time with Seven Brief Lessons on Physics in 2016, which became a cult sensation thanks to the combination of brainy science and poetic prose. Rovelli guided us through Einstein’s general theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, quantum gravity, black holes and more in under a hundred pages. Now he’s written another miniature masterpiece, packaged in a jewel-like midnight blue and silver casing, in which he seeks to explain what white holes are, and why they might come out of black holes. Rovelli’s enjoyably whimsical style is a clever foil to explain ideas that are basically incomprehensible, even to him, as he frequently admits. Imagine a place where time stops or doesn’t exist. Imagine a star that burns for billions of years. Imagine a black hole with a mass four million times that of our Sun. Incomprehensible perhaps, but Rovelli brings us a little closer in the most charming way, making us feel a tiny bit cleverer as he does so.

Classic Christmas Crime Stories edited by David Stuart Davies

Eleven murder mystery stories by some of the greatest crime writers from the past are packed into this gorgeous gilt-embossed, cloth-bound volume, with oak design endpapers and a silk-ribbon bookmark. ‘Death on the Air’ is a classic from Ngaio Marsh – complete with butlers, house maids, mops, dusters and a valve radio. ‘Murder Under the Mistletoe’ by Margery Allingham features Allingham’s favourite sleuth, Albert Campion investigating what happened to a dead body discovered under a clump of mistletoe, while ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ by Arthur Conan Doyle sees Sherlock Holmes pursuing the disappearance of a priceless gemstone which may be hidden in a Christmas goose. Tales by HRF Keating, Peter Lovesey and Marjorie Bowen are here too, along with ‘Markheim’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, an oddball Gothic horror fable set in an antique shop in the 1880s. Charmingly old-fashioned, but I can’t imagine a single person who wouldn’t like to receive this little gem in their stocking.

The Gardening Book by Monty Don

Unpretentious, easy to follow and beautifully photographed by Marsha Arnold, this is the perfect present for any newbie gardener lacking in confidence and wondering where to begin. The most important question is what kind of garden do you want, writes Don, who has become something of a national treasure. A garden to entertain in, one filled with edible things, a contemplative oasis, a wildlife sanctuary or somewhere for the children to play? What kind of plants grow best where. When to mulch. What type of soil do you have? How to prune. How to divide. How to propagate. Harvesting apples. Making a pond. Growing fruit. Caring for the lawn. Creating a bug hotel. Collecting seeds. Essential jobs for each month of the year. There’s even a chapter devoted to making a garden if you don’t have any outdoor space. And while this book is aimed at anyone starting out, the most experienced gardener will find much to enjoy here too.

The Secret of Cooking: Recipes for an Easier Life in the Kitchen by Bee Wilson

“I wanted to crack the code of how to fit cooking into the everyday mess and imperfection of all our lives…” So writes Bee Wilson at the start of this superb cookbook-cum-memoir. Not only did she suffer from what she calls ‘cooking anxiety’, but her husband of 23 years had just walked out on her and their three children. The result, luckily for us, is both readable and browsable. Who knew that knife sharpeners are so vital, or that old-fashioned box graters deserve pride of place in a kitchen? Cooking as both therapy and necessity for Wilson slowly morphed into cooking for pleasure, and her style is refreshingly gung-ho yet compassionate. ‘I do it this way, but you don’t have to,’ is the tone. She packs in dozens of delicious, doable dishes for every occasion, which alongside the rustically-styled photographs – even a washing-up bowl of utensils in sudsy water looks fabulous – make this the cookbook to give. She writes straight from the heart.

Absolutely and Forever by Rose Tremain

I’ve just reread this and it absolutely remains my favourite book of the year. Short, intense and bittersweet, it’s a finely-wrought novel about the devastation of first love. The story begins in the late 1950s, when 15-year-old narrator Marianne Clifford is at a girls’ boarding school and has become infatuated with beautiful Simon Hurst, who she has met at a party. “When I danced with him, I felt as if I was being wafted to eternity.” After losing her virginity to him, she imagines their perfect life together, but when he fails his entrance exams to Oxford, his parents send him in disgrace to Paris. When he breaks off with Marianne, she must learn to make a different life for herself and discovers swinging sixties London. It’s only at the end that we discover what went wrong, although we may have guessed already. No matter. Along with the terrible sadness at its core, Tremain evokes a bygone era of cucumber sandwiches, genteel glasses of sherry, deferring to Mummy and Daddy, and shopping at Peter Jones, pitch perfectly.

Erotic Vagrancy: Everything about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor by Roger Lewis

If you’re too young to be familiar with Hollywood’s glitziest, most glamorous couple, it doesn’t matter. You’ll still be sucked into this heady story of excess everything: money, jewels, costumes, booze, pill-popping, marriages – including two to each other – and that’s before the movies Burton and Taylor made, together and separately. He was the son of a Welsh coal miner – a handsome, talented, moral puritan with a libertine’s taste for wine and women; she was a child-woman – a spoilt narcissist addicted to marrying men and medicating herself, captivatingly beautiful with prodigious appetites. This rip-roaring read delves deep into their world: who said what to whom, where they ate, what they wore, the private planes chartered for Taylor’s pet menagerie, the demands for Michelin meals in the middle of the night, the courtiers, the celebrities and of course their suffocatingly obsessive love for each other. Burton died at 58, Taylor went on, and on. Lewis packs every one of these 750 pages with breathless, whirlwind detail.

Signature Cocktails by Amanda Schuster

This is a must for any mixologist or keen cocktail quaffer. Two hundred recipes and the riveting stories behind them are accompanied by simple, stunning photographs. Among the seven recipes for martinis is the Bone Dry Martini made (believe it or not) with chicken bone. It was a thing a few years ago in Hoxton, apparently. I loved the story behind the Suffering Bastard, a bourbon and gin-based ‘reviver’ cocktail invented in a Cairo bar during WW2, and I’m delighted to see that most delicious of French aperitifs, Lillet Blanc, feature so widely in recipes. The Negroni Sbagliato, which swaps gin for Prosecco, sounds intriguing and the Phaidon 100 is a touching addition, designed by the Connaught’s mixologist Agostino Perrone to celebrate the publisher Phaidon’s centenary year. There’s a nice story here, too, about Ada Coleman, known as ‘Coley’, the first female head bartender of the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel who served cocktails in the 1920s to Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich and others.

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray

It missed bagging this year’s Booker Prize by a whisker and it should have done, because the Irish author’s seventh novel is a hugely ambitious and enjoyable saga. Meet the Barnes family. Set in a typical small Irish town, Dickie Barnes owns a car dealership that has seen better days and he harbours some rather unexpected and dark secrets. His wife Imelda is vain and shallow, has an EBay shopping addiction and was once in love with Dickie’s brother, who died. Their children are teenage Cass, who longs to escape her stifling surroundings, and slightly younger, nerdy PJ, who likes video games. At over 600 pages, Murray has plenty of room to develop the characters and their stories at leisure. He’s especially good on generational differences and the complexities of ordinary family dynamics. If you loved The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, you’ll enjoy Murray’s carousel style of storytelling that allows each character to narrate, and even fast readers should be kept going through Christmas.

Antarctica by Claire Keegan

The most frustrating aspect of Keegan’s writing is that there’s so little of it, but her publishers have stepped up and reissued this debut short story collection from 1999 to bridge the gap. With their pared-down writing style and timeless settings, these 15 stories (some just a few pages long) of women wronged, neglected and sometimes abused, read as auditions for her later novellas such as Foster and Small Things Like These. In ‘Love in the Tall Grass’, a woman waits ten years for her lover to leave his wife, only to discover that things are not quite as she imagined when she finally meets him again. A lifelong ledger of simmering resentments between siblings comes to a head in ‘Sisters’, when a woman arrives with her children at the old family home, expecting to be waited on hand and foot by her sister. I found the most electrifying story to be ‘Antartica’, in which a happily-married woman decides to play away for one night, with nightmarish consequences.

A History of Women in 101 Objects: A Walk through Female History by Annabelle Hirsch, translated by Eleanor Updegraff

Ten years ago, Hirsch, a German journalist and author, found herself in novelist Karen Blixen’s childhood home, looking at a stack of copper pans in the kitchen. Did Blixen even cook, and what did the pans say about her life, Hirsch wondered, a curiosity that has led to this idiosyncratic compendium. Painted handprints made circa 20,000 BC in French and Spanish caves are now thought to be those of females. A chopine - the precursor to today’s platform shoe - worn by 16th-century Venetian noblewomen tells the story of how they wanted to raise themselves both physically and in status. A ‘Safety Bicycle’ of 1889 illustrates how a contraption offered women a new kind of freedom. Chanel Nº5, created in 1921 was the first sophisticated blend of scents in modern and cool packaging. The Rabbit Pearl, Kim Kardashian’s 15-carat diamond ring and a menstruation cup also feature in a narrative that’s fun and informative without ever being preachy about the patriarchy.