I’m a South African living in the UK, meaning I get some strange looks when I refer to December as the “Summer Holidays”. I’m in London this year, though, so I’m going to be neutral and say this is a round-up for your December holidays, rather than giving in to the temptation of a “Cozy Fireside Reading List” or a “Sunny Poolside Reading List”.
I am exhausted by the notion of a “holiday read” – and by that I mean a book which people only read on holiday to relax but feel compelled to clarify has only been picked because they’re tired and it’s a holiday. I understand that it’s a socialised thing, but please try banish the phrase “guilty pleasure” from your literary vocabulary. Firstly, a book being easy to read does not make it something you should be ashamed to read, nor does it mean it’s not well-written. Secondly, you don’t need to read Dickens on the beach or Austen by the fire for your reading to be considered worthwhile. If you’re reading for the status symbol rather than for the sheer thrill of a story that can keep you up all night, or have you giddily forcing everyone you know to buy a copy, then you may need to reconsider why you’re doing it. Don’t get me wrong – I love a classic. But you never need to feel guilty for choosing a book to entertain you rather than to stimulate and spark your next think-piece on neo-liberalism.
These are all books I’ve given 5 stars (follow me on Goodreads, by the way) – some of them were released this year, but there are plenty that took me way too long to get on the bandwagon.
Disclaimer: I earn a small commission if you buy through these links, at no extra cost to you. If you’re reading this from South Africa – Book Depository ships to you. If you’re reading this from the UK – you’ll know Waterstones and Foyles, but Book Depository also has some great deals. And if you don’t know what Amazon is, how are you even using the device you’re on right now?!
By Tayari Jones
Memorable quote: “Much of life is timing and circumstance, I see that now.”
Synopsis: When Roy is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, yet another man in the wrong place with the wrong skin colour at the wrong time in Louisiana, his new marriage to Celestial enters a realm it was never intended to exist within. Roy, in prison longer than he has even been married to Celestial. Celestial, living half a life that she didn’t sign up for.
Memorable quote: “I can’t lose the thing I’ve held onto for so long, you know?” My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. “I just really need it to be a love story, you know? I really, really need it to be that.”
Synopsis: We are offered a window into the life of Vanessa Wye, both as a 15-year-old and in her early 30s. When she was 15, she entered into a sexual relationship with her 45-year-old teacher, Jacob Strane… or at least, she believes it was a relationship – a consenting, loving one into which she voluntarily entered.
Memorable quote: “Passion is…it’s fire. And fire is great, man. But we’re made of water. Water is how we keep living. Water is what we need to survive.”
Synopsis: In retrospective interview style, we learn about a 70s rock band called The Six who team up with the effervescent singer-songwriter Daisy Jones to write an album that would make them one of the most adored rock groups of the era. With love, desire, drugs (so, so many drugs) and an unquestionable appreciation of music as the bedrock of the novel, an entire world is created and destroyed between bookends.
By Sally Rooney
Memorable quote: “I was tired, it was late, I was sitting half-asleep in the back of a taxi, remembering strangely that wherever I go, you are with me, and so is he, and that as long as you both live the world will be beautiful to me.”
Synopsis: As with most Rooney, a “plot” summary can’t really be written, as there wasn’t a plot so to speak but rather a window into everyday life and the relationships within it. It is a novel about female friendship, socialism, and the arguably inescapable grip that class has on Ireland (which I think extends to Northern Ireland and the UK at large) even in supposedly non-political situations, which Rooney spoke in fascinating detail about during the launch event.
Memorable quote: “I find it ridiculous to assign a gender to an inanimate object incapable of disrobing and making an occasional fool of itself.”
Synopsis: Between hysterical tales of his cruel speech therapist, his pathologically unkind French teacher, his attempts to explain what the Easter Bunny is in French, his experience living in Paris and his brief stint trying to learn the guitar, David Sedaris also weaves in moments of intimacy and introspection in this laugh-out-loud essay collection.
By Damian Barr
Memorable quote: “Above all this the stars shine.”
Synopsis: It starts in a diary format, from a mother in one of the South African concentration camps in which British soldiers imprisoned women and children during the war. This woman and her child’s story is darkly connected to the fate of a contemporary young boy called Willem, timid and “weird” in the eyes of his peers and family, who send him to a camp called New Dawn, a ranger camp that claims to make “men out of boys”. His experience is a re-imagining of the true story of Raymond Buys, a teenager who was murdered in 2011 at a similar camp, run by the Afrikaans Resistance Movement (AWB), a far-right political party dedicated to secessionist Afrikaner nationalism.
Memorable quote: “I believe almost dogmatically in difference, in the idea that every single person is unique, with their own innate sense of self, and that it is this difference which brings all of us together as one.”
Synopsis: Amrou Al-Kadhi has written a simultaneously gritty and glittery memoir about their life, from a childhood in Dubai and Iraq to an education at Eton and then Cambridge; from a young Muslim desperate to appease their family’s expectations, to the fabulous Glamrou, a beloved drag performer.
By Emilie Pine
Memorable quote: “The person who loves the addict exhausts and renews their love on a daily basis.”
Synopsis: This is Emilie Pine’s collection of essays; a memoir in definitive parts: Her dad falling ill whilst living in Greece, the baby years, her parents’ divorce, periods and the associated shame that comes with the territory of womanhood, as well as her “wilder” years – of drug abuse, running away from home, sleeping on the street. And eventually, her sexual abuse.
9. Kololo Hill
By Neema Shah
Memorable quote: “Who would remember them once they’d gone?”
Synopsis: In 1972, Idi Amin expelled all Ugandan Asians from the country: a community was fractured, families were separated and spread across the world, and in this novel, we follow family’s journey to Britain, which is rooted in the author’s family history.
Watch my interview with Neema Shah on Babble:
By Tish Delaney
Memorable quote: “I’m not yours and you’re not mine. That’s what I say to his dreaming face as I watch the shadows of his dark eyelashes dance by the light of a Tilley lamp. It’s not the first lie I’ve told myself.”
Synopsis: Growing up during the Troubles on The Hill, Mary dreams of one thing only: the route out of Carncloon, away from her abusive mother and apathetic father, and over to America. Her best bet is with her boyfriend, Joe, whose doting doctor parents want nothing but the best for him. Things don’t go to plan and rather than even contemplate the Catholic shame Mary’s pregnancy would drown the family in, Mary’s mother has her married off down the hill before the bump can even threaten to trip them up in the eye of the church.