Leading authors share the book they re-read every festive season.
Leading authors share the book they re-read every festive season.
Whether it’s putting up the tree or tucking into your first mince pie, December is full of traditions. And just like watching Love Actually for the 27th time, re-reading a special book is all part of the fun. Here Robin Stevens, Cara Hunter and five other Penguin authors share the stories behind the books they always turn back to at Christmas, from ghost stories to murder mysteries to Jane Eyre.
The book I re-read every Christmas is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. The story might begin on a London summer’s evening, but for me it evokes the gorgeous murky gloom of an English winter: the creeping mists, muddy roads and freezing rain that slides down the back of your neck and sends you sneezing to your bed.
When I was twelve, my godfather gave me The Woman in White as a Christmas present, with the assurance that it might be long but it would not be boring. I opened the first page, and the rest of the world ceased to matter. I spent the whole of that Christmas crouched behind the sofa in our living room, just existing in the story. I had never read a book for adults in which so many terrible things happened so quickly. I fell wildly in love with intrepid lady detective Marian Halcombe, thrilled at each increasingly unlikely plot twist and felt swept up by the delicious drama. I still have the same emotions at every re-read.
It’s clear that Wilkie Collins had the most enormous fun writing The Woman in White, and also clear that (although it touches on concerns that are as present today as they were in 1859: the way men can abuse their power, the way women are not believed when they tell inconvenient truths) this is in no way a book that is supposed to be sensible and good for you. It’s pure escapist joy, intricate enough to stand up to repeated re-reading but sharp enough for a reader to be able to blast through it in a few lazy post-Christmas days. It’s still one of my favourite classics, and a book that conjures up Christmas from just its title. If you pick it up this year, you won’t regret it.
If you asked for a film that my family watches every year, the answer would be easy: Miracle on 34th Street (the 1994 remake) is a tradition, as is The Princess Bride. Although now that my two children are no longer children and have long since moved away, it’s hard to drag them back home and force them to sit through them. But when it comes to books there is one that we used to get out every Christmas Eve. In fact, when my son, David, was a child he would insist on me or his mother reading it to him each year. This was Mog’s Christmas, by Judith Kerr.
David doesn’t yet have his own children, but we’ve stuck the book in the box full of his childhood toys, mementos and school reports. Now I’m thinking of taking it out again and putting it aside. There’s no reason why it can’t become a grandparents’ tradition.
My Christmas read is John Masefield’s classic The Box of Delights. I first found it at my grandparents’ house on Dartmoor, and I always associate it with poking their recalcitrant coal fire, and the pink and white marshmallows that were such a Christmas fixture. It’s the story of young Kay Harker, who gets caught up in a struggle to possess a magical box, and it has everything: dastardly villains disguised as clerics, time travel to the Trojan war, steampunk robot dogs, and tying it all together, the ominous refrain: ‘the wolves are running’. Part golden age detective novel, part magical children’s book, best of all is its strong sense of the winter landscape.
Now I see that the box of delights is a Hitchcockian McGuffin – what really matters is Christmas itself. Along the way there are wonderful moments: pugnacious young Maria, expelled from numerous schools, who wishes that Christmas had more pistols; a magical Punch and Judy show with tropical butterflies; and drunken rats singing their piratical songs while feasting on a ham bone are particular favourites.
Christmas is the time for warming your toes round the fire, while sending a chill up your spine reading a good ghost story. And they don’t come better or creepier than Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. It’s set up, fittingly enough, as ‘a strange tale’ told ‘on Christmas Eve in an old house’. And it’s everything such a tale should be – a remote Gothic country house, a governess straight out of Jane Eyre, two apparently adorable but increasingly terrifying children. There are secrets and lies and nothing is what it seems. Are the ghosts the governess sees real, or just the hallucinations of her own overwrought mind? Are the children manipulative and predatory, or the innocent victims of terrible abuse?
I’ve loved this book for years – it’s not very long and not a word is wasted. The sense of foreboding stays with you long after the final page. I’ve also seen several versions of the Benjamin Britten opera, most recently a stunning one at Garsington this year. That was every bit as menacing, even in the glorious sunshine of a summer afternoon – no mean feat! So pull up a chair, turn down the lights and prepare to be afraid, very afraid…
My all-time favourite books that I dip into all the time are South by Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown. I give a copy to everyone I love and admire, and to every new pal I make. I was lucky enough to visit Antarctica and South Georgia two years ago to retrace Shackleton’s extraordinary journey after his boat, the Endurance, was trapped and sunk in the ice. And Orkney, where George Mackay Brown lived and worked all of his life, is one of my favourite places to visit.
This year I also really enjoyed The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, a remarkable real-life story of a middle aged couple who find themselves homeless and embark on the 630-mile South West Coast Path. It’s uplifting and life-affirming and makes you realise that possessions don’t matter and that love is the most important thing of all. I also loved Dear Fatty by Dawn French – it’s a complete delight, as you would expect from Dawn. Funny and charming but also very honest, you really feel as though you get to know this remarkable woman.
I read Jane Eyre in my first year of secondary school, and I have re-read it almost every year since. Twelve-year-old me ghoulishly relished the horror of the suffering orphan children; Jane beating her fists on the floor of the red room, Jane stood on a stool while the whole school filed past her, the unfortunates walking out two-by-two to church on bitter Sundays with cold meat in their pockets (cold meat in their pockets?!). In my teens I thought I was terribly mature for seeing it as a very ‘sexy’ book. Mr Rochester and his dashing side eye. Jane’s cutting come-backs. The drama of the reunion! But when I read it now as an adult I love it for its weirdness. The scenes I never really noticed growing up are the ones that stick with me now; Rochester dressing up as fortune-telling travelling woman, St John Rivers and his utter creepiness and… a wife hidden in the attic?! (Bertha no longer a convenient gothic plot device to be disposed of, once I had discovered Wide Sargasso Sea.)
I came across the Brontë juvenilia for the first time three years ago, and my reading of Jane Eyre changed yet again. Rochester was not the first of Charlotte’s glowering, Byronic devils. I discovered Zamorna; a man so wicked his attraction was frankly baffling, and yet possessed of ‘a basilisks charm.’ But mostly I saw the creation of a world so vivid and real to its creators, that it eclipsed their reality.
I always read the Sherlock Holmes stories at Christmastime. Not just for the ingenious plotting, or Holmes’ withering affection for Watson, or the poignant cross-section of lost Victorian personalities, but for the espresso-shot evocations of a lost London: all smog, horse manure and acres of gaslit brickwork. In Conan Doyle’s stories, as with Christmas Day, much is compressed into little. I always save one story in particular for the day itself: ‘The Musgrave Ritual’. Centring around a misremembered riddle, a genteel ritual and a kingly relic, it seems to crystallise all that is best of the day. And I read it as Holmes and Watson themselves might: before the fire, with cold cuts from the sideboard and the heel of a bottle from the lunch table. Then I savour how thin the wall really is, on this day of all days, between past times and the present.
Whether it’s a gift for a colleague you’ve barely uttered a word to or for Great Auntie what’s-her-name you only see once a year, there’s nothing quite like the annual public humiliation of a Secret Santa. But fear not – one of these stocking-sized books are guaranteed to get a nod of approval, whoever's name it is you pulled out of a hat.