Find the right Christmas book right here

With 25 titles to choose from, you are certain to find the right stocking filler among our reviewers’ selection of books for Christmas.

The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. Bantam, £15.19, down from £18.99.

When Stephen Hawking’s new book – his first for 10 years – came out earlier this year The Times splashed on the story under the headline “Hawking: God did not create universe”. Not really expecting him to have said anything other, I didn’t rush to the bookshop. When a copy arrived for this Christmas books section, however, I went looking for the bit about God. It is on the penultimate page: “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” And that’s it. This humdrum assertion from one of the greatest scientists of all time provoked an almighty furore and a predictable onslaught from the religious-minded.

That was at the expense of what Hawking and co-author Mlodinow wanted to convey: that science is close to what they call an M-theory, an over­arching theory of why we are here, if not what life’s all about. It is complicated, but in essence they argue that our universe is one of a huge number of possible universes which are governed by different laws. If this is too much for you, this book is worth buying for the clear, concise exposition of the development of science since the Greeks alone. Sceptics about human-induced global warming, not to mention ministers and bishops, might learn something.PR

The Reader’s Digest Baking Bible. David & Charles, £10.39 down from £12.99.

Here’s a book that will make a welcome addition to the library of anybody who is already keen on baking, but which also provides a useful intro­duction to the subject for beginners.

In the section on classic cakes, for instance, the Black Forest Cherry Cake recipe requires time and skill, whereas the one for Lemon Cake is quite straightforward.

Other chapters include muffins and cookies, pizzas and tarts, and light bites and lunches. All of them combine well-known recipes with more unusual ones, such as Marzipan Orange Muffins and Guacamole Choux Buns.

Cream features highly when it comes to recipes for special occasions, but there are also low-fat and healthy options. Another appealing feature is that lots of the pizzas and savoury tarts are suitable for vegetarians.

Holiday baking includes some interesting foreign recipes, such as German Spiced Cookies. Breads range from a plain white loaf to a Seed-Topped Flatbread and one which uses peaches and sour cream.

All the recipes are beautifully illustrated, so you know what the end result should look like. There are also instructions on basic baking skills, handy tips, a troubleshooting section and a glossary.

Anyone finding this under the tree on Christmas morning will not be disappointed. Cathy Feeny

The Stornoway Black Pudding Bible. Recipes by Seamus MacInnes. Birlinn, £4.99.

This little book, an ideal stocking filler, is cram­med with great ideas for using the spicy, delicious and versatile food that is black pudding – or more specifically Stornoway black pudding.

Chef Seamus MacInnes of Glasgow’s Cafe Gandolfi has packed it into 50 recipes in an enthusiastic celebration of the humble food.

Because black pudding, he reckons, can be used in almost everything. It can be crumbled into mince (lamb or beef), for example, to add a twist to a well loved dish, but there is more.

For starters you could try aubergine and cinnamon-stuffed black pudding. Bacon and black pudding salad with walnuts and mozzarella sounds good too, as does black pudding stuffing – fine with chicken.

From there MacInnes lets rip. He gives us black pudding and mutton pasties, black pudding tortilla, black pudding and monkfish paella, black pudding with creamy celeriac, or with cumin and mint hummus or with salt cod.

No matter what it is – halloumi, pinto beans, rabbit or kedgeree – black pudding is in there somewhere.

It can be incorporated into scones (possibly), but it gets more unusual. Will anyone try blending black pudding with ricotta and piping into courgette flowers to be deep fried? Or combining it with rhubarb in filo pastry parcels?

Has he genuinely tried all the recipes he recommends? Because some are not convincing. In his recipes for eggs en cocotte with black pudding, for example, he suggests cooking the eggs in ramekin dishes at 180C for 15 minutes – not long enough. Or a cheese sauce poured over onions and black pudding and cooked on a baking tray does not sound like a success.

However MacInnes gives a host of good ideas and the accompanying line drawings are delightful – just take everything he says with a pinch of salt.RG

Strictly English, Simon Heffer. Random House Books, £10.39, down from £12.99.

“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put,” goes Churchill’s celebrated line. And in an age where proper language is increasingly absent from mediums like social networking, and where spoken sentences are frequently peppered with the word “like” for no particular reason, right-wing media veteran Simon Heffer’s book seems a timely one. He outlines a persuasive case for clear writing which uses proper grammar, spelling and punctu­ation, cuts out ambiguous language and resists the cheapening of English.

Several sections are devoted to the basic building blocks. Heffer notes from experience that it is now possible to get a first-class English degree “without being able to spell”. Some of the passages are a little dry, akin to being back in the school classroom – but that is evidently the remedy he feels many require. The writer wisely recommends George Orwell’s peerless Politics and the English Language as the best place to start.

More entertaining are his many examples of bad English. Heffer takes to task speech and writing packed with filler words, such as “on a daily basis” instead of “daily”, or beginning sentences with the gratuitous “at the end of the day”. The short section on sensationalist tabloid language seeping into mainstream use is especially enjoyable. As he asks, if a football fan is “devastated” when his team loses a match, what adjective can adequately describe his feeling when he returns home to find his wife and children have been killed in a fire?NR

The QI Book of the Dead, John Lloyd and John Mitchinson. Faber & Faber, £7.19, down from £8.99.

The only criterion imposed by the authors of this quirky book for inclusion was “intererestingness”. It’s a wholly subjective criterion, of course, and the book could have been 10 times the size, or more. I liked it, however, because it includes the Greek philosopher Epicurus, a most sensible man whose idea of the good life, in the ethical sense of that term, was to live “wisely and honourably and justly”, which in turn depends on living “pleasantly”. Above and beyond the bare necessities, Epicurus says, freedom, thought and friendship are fundamental to living thus.

He also combatted his fear of death by accepting that there was no afterlife. As the authors put it, “When you’re gone, you’re gone. What matters is a contented life in the here and now. Ideally, sitting under a tree, talking philosophy with friends.”

Epicurus appears in the “Happy-go-lucky” section; other sections include “There’s Nothing Like a Bad Start in Life”, which certainly applies to Lord Byron, and “The Monkey-keepers”: Catherine de Medici anyone? Those who have been to University College, London, will know that you can still see the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (died, 1832), there; the story of how he came to be is rather well told.PR

100 Cars Britain Can Be Proud Of, Giles Chapman. The History Press, £7.99 down from £9.99.

Britain’s motor industry’s dead and buried, right? Wrong. Here, Giles Chapman champions UK car-making in a celebration of British machines – many of which carry names still in production today.

He holds your interest by avoiding too much technical information. Many British cars were born, expediently, from the circumstances of their day.

So, if you didn’t know the Mini came about because the Suez crisis forced up oil prices, and imported bubble-cars were becoming worryingly popular, you will on reading this book. Just as you’ll understand how the Land Rover was (Continued on next page) (Continued from previous page) launched after World War II to make use of surplus materials like aircraft-grade aluminium.

There are car companies listed that have died off, but British cars spawned machines across the globe. Chapman doffs his cap to the Hindustan Ambassador – an Indian-built Morris Oxford. There’s also recognition for British-built Japanese cars which, ironically, are exported to the Far East.

Fine machines are detailed from the likes of Jaguar, Jensen and Lagonda, which swell the heart with patriotic fervour. That’s until you stumble across the much maligned Morris Marina – why be proud of that?

Chapman speaks out for the underdog, and won’t judge a car too harshly (the Marina fulfilled its brief as a contender on the fleet market). Other unlikely candidates include the Hillman Hunter, the Chrysler Alpine and the Rover 75, admired by the Italians for its styling.

Packed with pictures and interesting facts, this book reminds us of how things were, while making plain UK car building, today, is not as bad as we might think.RT

The Great Explorers, edited by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. Thames & Hudson, £19.96, down from £24.95.

“It has always been mankind’s gift, or curse, to be inquisitive … to explore the limits of the worlds known to them and beyond,” writes Hanbury-Tenison, editor of this impressive book, which chronicles the lives of 40 explorers.

In a series of biographies, distinguished travel writers, broadcasters and historians examine what drives individuals to leave all that is familiar and to venture into the unknown, often with no certainty of returning. As Hanbury-Tenison says: “Great explorers are different from other men and women.”

Many of the featured explorers kept journals and their work is quoted – in other cases the work of artists on expeditions is reproduced.

The book is divided into the sections of oceans, land, rivers, ice, deserts, natural life in flora and fauna, and the “new frontiers” of space, underwater and underground.

It starts with the pioneer Christopher Columbus, who quite simply “changed the face of the world”. The tome continues with a range of the greatest explorers including Vasco da Gama, James Cook and David Livingstone, but also includes lesser-known travellers. Thus there are sections on the quest for gold in South America, the opening up of North America, discovering the source of the Nile and 19th century adventures in south-east Asia.

The subject of polar exploration is covered with examination of characters such as Nansen and Amundsen, contrasting starkly with those whose passion is the desert. Here we are brought almost into more recent times with the work of Wilfred Thesinger crossing the “empty quarter” in Arabia.

The book ends with sections on well-known figures such as first man in space Yuri Gagarin and underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

Altogether the book is a feast for Christmas, being informative but not tedious, and the beautiful colour illustrations on nearly every page – photographs, maps and reproductions of paintings – make it a delight to dip into.RG

Behind Enemy Lines, Sir Tommy Mac­pherson (with Richard Bath). Mainstream Publishing, £14.39, down from £17.99.

What’s amazing about Tommy Macpherson’s story is that it took him so long to write it.

The British army’s most decorated living soldier, his tale has remained untold until now.

Aged 90, he has relied on journalist Richard Bath to help compile his thoughts, and they have produced a gripping and tender story.

Macpherson welcomed the challenge before him after signing up with the Cameron Highlanders.

He was captured twice. Yet he seemingly thought little of making repeated escape attempts.

You warm to Macpherson as he witnesses modern history in the making. At just 21, his persuasive skills convinced 23,000 SS soldiers to surrender, and he later crossed paths with Churchill, Montgomery and Charles de Gaulle.

What toughened him was his private education in Edinburgh, and opportunities to romp over the hills near his native Newtonmore. He is honest about his difficult relationship with his father.

There are lighter moments, like when Macpherson was held in an Italian camp. Officers interrogating him argued over the working of his Colt automatic weapon, until one of them asked him to demonstrate. That gave him an unexpected advantage, especially as he had hidden the magazine in his pocket.

Despite his antics, Macpherson never glorifies war. The memory of those killed stays with him. This candid account is a fitting tribute to those who fell.RT

The Hungoevr Cookbook, Milton Crawford. Square Peg, £5.59, down from £6.99.

This little book is more than just a cookbook. It begins with an endorsement of P G Wodehouse’s “typology” of hangovers, six in all: the Broken Compass, the Sewing Machine, the Comet, the Atomic, the Cement Mixer and the Gremlin Boogie. The author has devised a series of visual tests and questionnaires to help you establish which you are suffering from. He then directs you to recipes most likely to help. So, for example, if you are suffering from a Sewing Machine (being stabbed in the head with pointy things, in other words) he suggests an Elvis Presley peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich. If you can’t stomach peanut butter, how about scrambled eggs with caramelized onion and feta cheese? Yum. Or yuck.

Each recipe has a star system for difficulty and time taken, so if you are feeling really awful look for one star. If you have the stamina, there are a few four star efforts. But most of the recipes are straightforward. The question will most likely be whether you can make the effort at all. Can’t someone else do it for you?

The Book of Marmalade, C Anne Wilson. Prospect Books, £7.99, down from £9.99.

Anne Wilson is a distinguished food writer, having previously produced Food and Drink in Britain and Water of Life, a history of distilling. The Book of Marmalade tells the story of the origins of marmalade and its development and offers a series of rather fine recipes not only for marmalade itself but for a variety of savoury and sweet dishes made with the stuff. A fine book, not only for the breakfast table.

Surviving Tenko: The Story of Margot Turner, Penny Starns. The History Press, £10.39, down from £12.99.

When Margot Turner was evacuated from Singapore in 1942, her ship was shelled and she ended up on a raft with 15 fellow survivors. She was the only one to survive long enough to be picked up by a Japanese destroyer. Imprisoned on Banka Island, she recovered and was able to use her own skills as a professional nurse to aid other prisoners of war. Then she was arrested by the Kempietai and put in the Palembang jail for six months before returning to a POW camp. Her story inspired the 1980s TV series Tenko and is told here in the first biography for 40 years by historian Penny Starns, whose impressive research is conveyed in an accessible, well-written fashion.

The Little Oxford Gift Box, comprising Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Oxford University Press, £11.99 down from £14.99.

These palm-sized books come together in a neat little box and are handy for popping on the desk for easy access. Despite their size they manage to run to more than 400 pages each, providing a great selection if not the full range available in the larger editions. A thoughtful Christmas present.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. Oxford University Press, £13.59, down from £16.99.

Competition among publishers, even for sales of the classics, is intense. In 2005 Penguin published a new translation of War and Peace by Anthony Briggs which was greeted with universal acclaim. Now OUP has produced its own similarly-priced translation, although Amy Mandelker’s work is a revised and edited version of Louise and Aylmer Maude’s ”definitive”  translation from the 1920s.

It is a fresh and modern rendering; the verdict on how it compares to Briggs is beyond my ability to pronounce. Why not splash out on one of the greatest novels of all time and make up your own mind?PR

Where On Earth? Geography Without the Boring Bits. Buster Books, £6.39 down from £7.99.

As a geographer’s son, I might have said “what boring bits?” Ho ho. Although it doesn’t say so, this neat little book is probably aimed at late-stage primary age children. It covers everything from the dimensions and make-up of the earth, through weather to the different climatic zones. And yes, in case you were worried, it has a little section at the back on capitals so you can remind yourself that the capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo.PR

The Puffin Mother Goose Treasury, Raymond Briggs. Puffin, £11.99 down from £14.99.

First published in 1966, Puffin has re-published this treasure trove of rhymes, beautifully illustrated by the marvellous Raymond Briggs, to mark its 70th anniversary. There are more than 800 accompanying illustrations, and they really do bring the great stories alive. Laced with humour and pathos in equal measure, they will now be imbibed in the collective memory of another generation of children. That is if their mothers and fathers read to them, of course.

Illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Ruth Brocklehurst and Gillian Doherty, illustrated by Rafaella Ligi. Usborne, £10.39, down from £12.99.

Everyone knows the Grimm stories, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. Here, in this superbly illustrated version aimed at younger children, there are also less familiar tales: King Thrushbeard and The Goose Girl. Just the right present for young children.

Stranger Than Fiction: Agatha Christie’s True Crime Inspirations, Mike Holgate. The History Press, £7.99, down from £9.99.

Like most crime writers, Agatha Christie was influenced by contemporary events. Mike Holgate traces the links between such things as the murders of Dr Crippen, the discoveries of Lord Carnarvon and the sinking of the Lusitania and the Queen of Crime’s work.

The style is straightforward and journalistic but the book will surely only be of interest to diehard Christie fans.

Cox’s Fragmenta: An Historical Miscellany, Simon Murphy. The History Press, £7.99, down from £9.99.

This is a splendid little volume. Maybe it should be renamed a hysterical miscellany, a tantalising book of nonsense with a chaotic chronology from the late 1750s through to 1833 taken from newspapers of the time.

The language is wonderfully archaic, the stories obscure and barely believeable, more often than not raising a chuckle.

One story that stands out is of a “notorious character” being released from jail and robbing an attorney one night, he wished the lawyer (whom he knew well) a good night, telling him it was only one thief robbing another.

This is a little gem of a volume and should have pride of place; it is perfect for dipping into. A shelf in the smallest room would be just right for snatches of a bygone age when fact was often stranger than fiction.SG

Wallace & Gromit Cracking Contraptions Manual, Graham Bleathman, Lee Parsons and Derek Smith. Haynes, £10.39, down from £12.99.

Aimed at Wallace and Gromit fans, this annual of sorts contains everything you need to know about the the famous Aardman pair’s contraptions, from their house at 62 West Wallaby Street with its Wash ‘n’ Go launch system to the splendid Porridge Cannon. The photographs and illustrations are excellent. And it’s all done by the publishers of car manuals – torn, coffee-stained and dog-eared to boot!

Wild Alphabet: An A to Zoo Pop-Up Book, Mike Haines and Julia Fröhlich. Kingfisher, £7.99, down from £9.99.

This beautifully produced little book is more of an introduction to exotic animals than the alphabet. The pop-ups are too sophisticated for young children learning their letters, so it is one for older children. The quetzal’s tail slides down to turn O into Q; the mosquito rises menacingly from the centre of M; the snake snakes round to become S. The best one is the jaguar, which pokes a leg and half its head, one eye shining out from its black fur, out from behind J.

The use of different fonts, deployed in clever fashion, emphasise the point made in the descriptions of the animals’ behaviour.

Wild Wonders of Europe, Peter Cairns, Florian Möllers, Staffan Widstrand and Bridget Wijnberg. Abrams, £23.99, down from £29.99.

A photograhic compendium of nature in Europe, this book is a visual feast of National Geographic standard photography that is more than ample reward for the hours you can spend perusing the images taken from mountain tops, in deserts, under the sea, in flower-strewn fields. My favourite is of a great grey owl perched on top of the flashgun of photographer Sven Zacek’s Nikon D5. Unfortunately, the story of the image is untold, which is odd in a section of the book devoted to the stories of unusual images. You’ll need a strong coffee table for this one.

Haunted Britain, Richard Jones. AA Publishing, £20, down from £25.

A compendium of Britain’s most haunted places, designed presumably to be kept in the car and visited whenever you are in that part of the world. The closest to Shetland are Kinnaird Head Castle, Fraserburgh, and Tulloch Castle, Dingwall.

Kinnaird Head is home to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses and is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a drowned piper. Isobel, daughter of the disapproving Sir Alexander Fraser, fell in love with the piper and they met in secret. He discovered them and threw the piper in a cave. The cave flooded and he drowned. “[I]t is said that the sound of ghostly pipe music sometimes drifts from [the cave] as the phantom piper plays a lament for his lost love”.

The ghost at Tulloch castle, meanwhile, is supposedly seen in Room 8 where Elizabeth, daugther of laird Duncan Davidson, discovered him in flagrante one night with his mistress. She fled along the corridor and tripped and fell down the stairs, killing herself. She is said to make occasional returns.

The Distant Hours, Kate Morton. Mantle, £13.59, down from £16.99. Kate Morton achieved great success with her first novel, The House at Riverton. The Distant Hours tells the story of the daughter of a wartime evacuee’s investigation into the time spent by her mother at a castle owned by a mysterious family. It has all the ingredients of an intriguing mystery story and at almost 700 pages will keep you engrossed on long winter nights.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space, Mary Roach. Oneworld, £10.39, down from £12.99.

The California-based science writer introduces the reader to the privations faced by those who embark on space travel: the loss of privacy, the odd eating requirements, life without gravity. Written in a concise and entertaining style, this book will make an excellent stocking filler for the man who has everything.


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