From blockbusters to fire-starters, Thomas Saunders and Jennifer Cox round up a selection of reads and audiobooks.
The ‘Call Yourself British?’ Quiz Book: Could You Pass the UK Citizenship Test?
Doubleday • £9.99
With Brexit looming, never has the question of Britishness been more pertinent, and so The Times' Michael Odell has compiled this quiz book based on the Home Office's official UK Citizenship Test. And pretty testing it is too: who amongst us knows what the 1986 Salmon Act is, or what qualifications the Queen has? Featuring over 500 multiple choice questions – Harrods installed the first escalator in 1898. What were customers offered when they reached the top? – with the correct answer amidst many more amusing ones, this is the perfect book for Christmas. Except for Australians and Nigerians, who clearly need no help as, according to a recent report, pass at a rate of 98% and 82.4% respectively.
Agatha Raisin and the Witches' Tree
Constable • £16.99
Before Penelope Keith played her on BBC Radio 4 and Ashley Jensen brought her to life on TV, Agatha Raisin lived and breathed in the novels of prolific author MC Beaton. Like a cross between Miss Marple and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, Agatha Raisin is a prickly PR guru turned sleuth wading through the murders and mayhem in the otherwise idyllic Cotswold village of Carsley. Witches' Tree is another true to form classic, with Agatha – backed by her usual village sidekicks including heart-throb James and ever-patient DS Wong – delving into the mysterious and gruesome death of village spinster Margaret Darby. Perfect for fans of Agatha Christie and Ellie Peters, this is the ideal cosy Christmas read.
The Art of Fire: The Joy of Tinder, Spark and Ember
Century • £20
A recent long weekend spent camping and outdoor cooking introduced me to the hypnotic beauty of gazing into the dancing flames of an open fire. So with great excitement I opened The Art of Fire by David Hume, a man trained in bushcraft by the king of wilderness himself, Ray Mears. The result is an ode to fire: a celebration of its evolution. From the basic and primitive essentials of light, heat, energy and cooking through to modern living, fire plays a central role in all of our lives. If, like me, you love the outdoors then you will find so much to enjoy about Hume's enthusiastic exploration of fire and wild wood lore. Who knew there was so much more to fire than just rubbing two sticks together?
The Mitford Murders: Curl up with the must-read mystery of the year
Sphere • £12.99
Author of five official Downton Abbey companion guides and niece of the award-winning TV series' creator Julian, Jessica Fellowes is steeped in the fictitious manners and matters of England's upper classes. So it's quite natural that she should set her first novel in the imagined world of the Mitfords: the aristocratic family at the heart of mid-20th century English literature, politics and scandal. Set in 1919, The Mitford Murders follows Louisa Cannon as she attempts to escape Eastend poverty to become a nursemaid to the young Mitford children. Befriending 16-year-old Nancy, the two become embroiled in the real-life unsolved murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of the famous nurse. It's a cracking escapade set in both the U and non-U England between the wars, with a , few sobering details about those times. Hopefully the start of a bright new series.
La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One (Book of Dust Series)
Penguin Random House • £20
Seventeen years after Philip Pullman wrote The Amber Spyglass, the final novel in his critically acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy, he returns to the steam-punk world of Oxford with a stunning prequel. La Belle Sauvage is set 10 years earlier, and we find Lyra just a baby but already in peril. Sheltered by the nuns of Godstow Priory, her father – Lord Asriel – is banned from visiting Lyra, even as dark forces pursue her. When Britain is engulfed in a terrible flood, a protector comes to Lyra's aid: 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his d¾mon, Asta. Set in Pullman's rich and fantastical world of magical powers and clunking post-Victorian technology, this is a welcome return not just to form, but to a world that Pullman's many readers have missed.
Origin: (Robert Langdon Book 5)
Bantam Press • £20
Fifth in the series from The Da Vinci Code author, fans will need no introduction to Robert Langdon – Dan Brown's Harvard Professor cum reluctant adventurer, a kind of Indiana Jones of cult religious iconology. Origin finds Langdon plunged into globe-trotting terror, fleeing the Guggenheim as his friend Edmond Hirsch's plan to undermine the very basis of organised religion ends in death and disaster. But which religion is at the heart of the attack, and can Langdon and the smart-yet-pretty director of the Guggenheim, Ambra Vidal, solve the cryptic password that will unlock Hirsch's world-shattering discovery before it is destroyed? Forensically written, this blockbuster adventure will be enthusiastically consumed by Brown fans everywhere.
Fools and Mortals
HarperCollins • £20
It wasn't that long ago that bestselling historical novelist Bernard Cornwell was known for his hugely popular Sharpe series, until the BBC serialised The Last Kingdom – his gripping dramatisation of King Alfred's fight to unify ninth-century England. But fans will have to wait to hear more from either character, as Cornwell embarks on a completely new era and series. The clue is in the title: Fools and Mortals is set in Elizabethan England and pitches us into the dangerous and duplicitous world of acting. As theatre gains popularity as an art form, Richard Shakespeare struggles to make his way in a theatre company dominated by estranged older brother William. The winner will not just live on in history, but to tell its stories. The play's the thing, and this is a bitter, no-holds battle of pure drama.
Talking Books: a round-up of the best new audio titles
Me. You. A Diary
Audible • £19.99
Perfect for fans of BBC Radio 4's My Teenage Diary, Dawn French reflects on her back catalogue of diaries, from the first crush to every disastrous hairstyle. Less read, more gurgled and guffawed in French's trademark voice, the entries span the years but are timed to follow a single calendar year.
Rumpole: BBC Radio 4's The Penge Bungalow Murders and other stories. A full cast production, written by John Mortimer
Audible • £13.99
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the young, feisty, devastatingly acute Horace Rumpole in this collection of cracking cases, also starring Timothy West as the older Rumpole. This two-part series marks the beginning of Rumpole's life.long liason with Hilda ('She who must be obeyed'). Marvellous stuff.
Audible • £23.99
There seems to be a fashion for authors to rework Greek myths.
And why not? From King Midas to golden-haired hunk Zeus and the beautiful and ferocious Artemis, they are among the greatest stories ever told. Stephen Fry captures both the classical roots and modern drama of these fantastic stories.
Bill Bryson's Appliance of Science Written and narrated by Bill Bryson
Audible • £14.99
Part of the new Audible podcast series, Bill Bryson teams up with the Science Museum's curators to take us on a fascinating journey through some of their lesser-known inventions and discoveries. Highlights include how a teenage inventor, a pig's head, a lump of plywood and a famous British record label made medical history.
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