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Fiction: best books for Christmas

I have yet to recover from the Christmas, decades ago, when I was given nothing but books (or so it felt).

What particularly upset me was not the lack of useless luxury gifts but that the books were all non-fiction. There was not a novel to be seen. This was little short of heresy, because as any reader knows, Christmas is the time for fiction. It's what it's made for. How else to survive the season, let alone enjoy it?

With that in mind, I start with one of the best novels I've read this year. Appropriately, Lucy Ellmann's upbeat comedy Mimi (Bloomsbury, £12.99) opens on Christmas Eve in Manhattan, when a plastic surgeon slips on ice and meets the heroine, who is like no girl he has ever known. What follows is literary Prosecco, a bubbly, tender and rollicking portrait of modern love and sex politics, by turns tender, nostalgic and refreshingly droll.

Some books have hogged the limelight, this year, but aside from JK Rowling's first crime novel, A Casual Vacancy, perhaps none has caused as much excitement as David Peace's Red Or Dead (Faber, £20), his paean to football manager Bill Shankly and Liverpool Football Club. Reports from Peace fans suggest it is something of a treat.

Others that grabbed the headlines were Donna Tartt's massive novel The Goldfinch (Little, Brown, £20), and Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton's equally obese The Luminaries (Granta, £18.99), both perfect for long winter nights. Tartt's is a slow-flowing story, which meanders and eddies as it recounts the life of a young man illegally in possession of the painting of the title; the other is an almost mathematically plotted account of the late 19th-century New Zealand outback, whose characters are drawn from the signs of the zodiac.

Set around the same era, but in America's wild and lonely west, is the late John Williams's superbly understated novel Butcher's Crossing (Vintage, £8.99). Williams won the Waterstones Book of the Year award this month for Stoner, which I've yet to read, but it will have to be pretty extraordinary to surpass his account of a young man joining a dour party of buffalo hunters and discovering not only his country's fearsome frontier, but something scarier still.

Some of the killing scenes in that novel are gruesome, but nothing like as hard to take as the child murderers in my colleague Neil Mackay's beautifully written debut All The Little Guns Went Bang Bang Bang (Freight, £8.99). Not for the timid, this is a gutsy, heart-rending imagining, set in a small Northern Irish community, of what lies behind the actions of those such as the young killers of Jamie Bulger.

There's tragedy of a different sort in James Robertson's The Professor Of Truth (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). Alan Tealing lost his wife and daughter in a plane crash that echoes the Lockerbie disaster. This thoughtful, elegantly controlled work draws the reader into Tealing's world, where 21 years on, unconvinced by the guilt of the only man who has been jailed for the bombing, he is still seeking answers. Plain and powerful, it gradually ignites as if a fuse has been set, to burn slowly through the tale until finally it flares.

Alan Spence's Night Boat (Canongate, £14.99) is not only a beautiful book but, as I've discovered, it lingers long in the mind. The fictional memoir of the famous 18th-century Buddhist guru Hakuin, Spence's effortless prose carries one on almost like music, as the young initiate follows the path of enlightenment across an eventful and influential life.

Another historical novel, again like Spence's free of any hint of genre cliche, is Antonio Pennacchi's masterly The Mussolini Canal (Dedalus, £14.99, translated by Judith Landry). My favourite novel of the year, it is a sweeping, giddying tale of those impoverished northern Italians who were relocated in the 1930s to farm the area of former swampland south of Rome, many of whom became ardent fascists. An exquisitely composed work of political and social insight, it is as humorous as it is haunting.

New Yorker Meg Wolitzer offers a saga of another kind in her vivid account of a group of talented teenagers whose lives she follows from school summer camp to middle age. The Interestings (Chatto & Windus, £16.99) is a comfortingly baggy, cleverly nuanced book whose characters, for all their flaws, are wholly absorbing. Unlike Christmas party guests, and the whole festive caboodle, I really missed them when it ended.

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