The best stocking-filler books of 2017

We pore over tomes for the coffee table, plus almanacs, anthologies and rappers’ offerings on food and hip-hop

And so they emerge again, washed up like an unwanted box of Guylian chocolates on the far distant shores of Amazon, Waterstones and the remaining independent bookshops: the seasonal range of novelty books, coffee table books, quirky reference books and the otherwise unclassifiable and unreviewable. How to sort the shiny, pretty things from the dreck and the dross; what to gift, regift and give to yourself?

Coffee table-wise, there is the usual choice, from the likes of Vogue: The Covers (Abrams), which is astonishingly heavy, to Agata Toromanoff’s Couples in Art (Ullmann), which might make a nice ironic gift for an ex, and Chris Roberts’ Beyoncégraphica (Aurum), which is an infographic-style biography of Beyoncé. Outstandingly rare and precious is Polly Devlin’s New York: Places to Write Home About (Pimpernel), a peek into the ...

Mother Land by Paul Theroux review – vivid and vicious family vignettes

Hurt, rage and contempt … a novel captures the author’s experiences of family life

Just as people are now living for longer, so writers are now writing for longer. Martin Amis published his first novel in 1973. Margaret Atwood started in the 1960s. It’s almost 20 years since the publication of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. In the future, careers the length of Agatha Christie’s and Barbara Cartland’s may become the norm.

Paul Theroux offers one example of how to cope with literary longevity. Starting out as a novelist – with Waldo, published in 1967 – Theroux then began publishing short stories, travel books, yet more novels, and more and more, dozens and dozens of books, including fiction and non-fiction which often blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction. How on earth has he managed to keep it up?

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Room Little Darker by June Caldwell review – junkies, sex slaves and ghosts

The Irish fiction renaissance continues with a gothic collection of short stories that shock and fascinate in equal measure
As Leonard Cohen asked: you want it darker? How about a story about a couple kept as sex slaves in a farmhouse in Leitrim, their desperate antics livestreamed to an audience of perverts worldwide? Or a junkie who gets a beating and a shoehorn “scoopslide right in and up on over” his “stink tunnel”? A story narrated by a foetus? The tale of a paedophile who is enrolled on a “dynamic new domestic-environment therapy with 100 per cent effectiveness demonstrated in trials across twelve countries on three continents”, which involves him adopting his own boy robot that he can abuse in the comfort and privacy of his own home? Room Little Darker, June Caldwell’s debut collection, couldn’t get much blacker. It reads like boiling tar. As Irish fiction once again ...

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist review – a deeply personal account of loss

In the latest manifestation of our craze for autofiction, a Swedish poet sets down his experience of bereavement
This book begins like a pitch for a TV hospital drama: “The consultant stamps down the wheel lock of Karin’s hospital bed. In a loud voice he addresses the intensive care nurses, who are cutting open her tank top and sports bra: Pregnant woman, week thirty-three, child reportedly in good health, started feeling ill about five days ago with flu-like symptoms, fever, cough, slight shortness of breath yesterday which was put down to her pregnancy, condition severely deteriorating today, acute respiratory difficulties, arrived at the maternity unit about an hour ago.” Cue title, cue backstory, cue human tragedy as human entertainment. There will always be books about extreme and painful experiences: without them literature would be reduced to so much analytical philosophy, avant-garde poetry and Janet and John books. The recent ...

A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson review – Agatha Christie in peril

The queen of crime is the central character in this audacious mystery, which reinvents the story of her mysterious disappearance with thrilling resultsThe biographer of Patricia Highsmith, Sylvia Plath and Alexander McQueen, Andrew Wilson has written fiction before, but A Talent for Murder is an entirely different kind of beast. You may perhaps have read those books in which Jane Austen is a detective, or the Brontës come back as ghosts: fan fiction in which a writer’s enthusiasm for their literary hero leads them towards a reimagining of the hero’s life. James Joyce, secret agent, etc. There are of course some fine examples of the genre: Drood (2009) by Dan Simmons, featuring Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and a number of novels by Matthew Pearl, who specialises in this kind of thing. But no one to date, to my knowledge, has successfully cast the queen of crime herself as ...

The Village News by Tom Fort review – the rich’s love affair with rural England

Fort, an expert on the quieter side of national life, takes a tour and discovers that villages have always been about change
Tom Fort is one of those delightfully curious sorts of fellow who writes delightfully curious sorts of books about delightfully curious sorts of things. He is the author of – among others – Against the Flow (2010), about his experiences fishing in eastern Europe; Downstream (2009), about punting on the River Trent; The Book of Eels (2002), a book about eels; and The A303 (2012), which is … etc. One might describe him as a kind of modern antiquarian. He is the thinking man’s Bill Bryson. Actually no, Bill Bryson is the thinking man’s Bill Bryson. Fort is very much his own man. In The Village News – a kind of history and gazetteer with a touch of the travelogue – Fort rambles, or cycles rather, between various themes ...

Larchfield by Polly Clark review – loneliness, longing and WH Auden

Auden’s years in Scotland take on new meaning for a young poet in this vivid debut
Polly Clark’s first novel is, at least in part, a fictional account of WH Auden’s time living and working in Helensburgh, Scotland, where he was a schoolmaster at the Larchfield Academy in the early 1930s. The book therefore takes its rightful place – alongside, say, Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun (1964, subtitle “A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life”) and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998) – on that long, strange, slightly wobbly shelf marked Fictional Lives of the Great Writers. Auden has been portrayed in fiction many times before, most recently and memorably perhaps in Lydia Davis’s short story, “How WH Auden Spends the Night in a Friend’s House”, in which she describes, entirely accurately, how he liked to sleep with a great weight on his bed and so used to pull ...