Caleb Azumah Nelson, Robin Stevens, and four other Penguin authors smile in an author photo collage.
Caleb Azumah Nelson, Robin Stevens, and four other Penguin authors smile in an author photo collage.

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, a host of 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 Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, chosen by Robin Stevens

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 12, 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.

Robin Stevens is the author of Death Sets Sail.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, chosen by Amir Khan

Every December when the nights draw in and the street lights shine like haloes in the thick fog, there is one book I always reach to: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The novel is set in Spain, where a young boy searches for secrets left behind by his favourite author in the wonderfully named Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It has everything you could possibly want from a good read by an open fire: star crossed lovers, devastating secrets, espionage and murder.

Although it is set in Spain, which might make you think it is a summer read, it has a gothic feel that lends itself perfectly to those winter evenings, and its meticulous descriptions and beautiful use of language will have you hooked from the get-go.  If you are like me and like nothing more than a twisted tale of deceit and forbidden love at Christmas time, this book is perfect.

Amir Khan is the author of The Doctor Will See You Now.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, chosen by Cara Hunter

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 has everything such a tale should: 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. 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…

Cara Hunter is the author of No Way Out.

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan, chosen by David Damrosch

A perfect book to read as the New Year approaches is Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, by China’s 2012 Nobel laureate Mo Yan. His satirical novel weaves an epic tale of China’s modern history, framed by New Year’s Days.

 It begins on January 1, 1950, when an apolitical farmer, Ximen Nao, is shot when the Communists come to power in his town – then finds himself reborn as a donkey. Every decade he dies again, reborn as an ox, then as a pig, a dog, and a monkey, giving us an animal’s-eye view of the changes sweeping over China. Finally, he achieves rebirth as a human baby, born at midnight on January 1, 2000, as “fireworks lit up the sky of Gaomi County’s new century, the first of a new millennium.” As he says, “Being reborn over and over may wear a guy out, but it has its advantages.”

David Damrosch is the author of Around the World in 80 Books.

South by Ernest Shackleton, chosen by Lorraine Kelly

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.

I also really enjoy 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 love 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.

Lorraine Kelly is the author of Shine.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty, chosen by Caleb Azumah Nelson

I always return to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout around the festive period. It’s a book that reveals something new every time I return to it. Beatty’s acerbic and absurd novel is helmed by an unnamed narrator, who is equal parts sharp and comforting, despairing and hopeful, and outrageously humorous, dissecting contemporary society in a way that will always be relevant. The narrative moves at breakneck speed, never giving you a moment to settle, as you’re given a tour of a fictional L.A., a hyperreal world which still holds onto enough elements of our world for the book to resonate. It’s one of a few novels I hold dear, in which not only can I hear the writer's music and rhythm, but feel it too.

I heard Paul read from the novel, shortly before he won the Booker Prize in 2016, and the novel is as good on its feet as it is on the page.

Caleb Azumah Nelson is the author of Open Water.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, chosen by Isabel Greenberg

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 comebacks. 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 basilisk's charm". But mostly I saw the creation of a world so vivid and real to its creators, that it eclipsed their reality.

Isabel Greenberg is the author of Glass Town.

Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr, chosen by Jim Al-Khalili

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.

Jim Al-Khalili is the author of Sunfall.

Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, chosen by Tom Nancollas

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 on 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. 

Tom Nancollas is the author of Seashaken Houses.

The Box of Delights by John Masefield, chosen by Emma Smith

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. 

Emma Smith is the author of This is Shakespeare.

What did you think of this article? Email and let us know.

Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

Read more

We use cookies on this site to enable certain parts of the site to function and to collect information about your use of the site so that we can improve our visitors’ experience.

For more on our cookies and changing your settings click here

Strictly Necessary


Preferences & Features

Targeting / Advertising