Ten Beautiful Books to Give as Christmas Gifts

The advent of the eReader did not, after all, signify the end of the book. Sales of physical books are up and, to meet the demand, publishers are increasingly issuing beautifully designed and illustrated editions you’ll love to look at as much as you love to read. And, these beautiful books are perfect gifts. Here are ten that are on my Christmas list…

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books
by Alex Preston, illustrated by Neil Gower

For the birdwatcher in your life, As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a gorgeously illustrated meditation on the endless grace and variety of birds. Tom Holland calls it, ‘A magical book: an inimitable fusion of ornithology, literary anthology and autobiography.’



Making Winter
Making Winter: A Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months
by Emma Mitchell

I was fortunate enough to attend one of Emma’s Silver Clay workshops in Cambridgeshire last year and so can confidently testify that she embodies the Danish philosophy of Hygge. Her Instagram feed is a delight to the eyes. Making Winter is a book full of her wonderful images and inspiring ideas for nature-orientated crafts.


Alias Grace
Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood

For the box set binge-watcher, if you were captivated by The Handmaid’s Tale, another of Margaret Atwood’s novels has been adapted for TV and is now available on Netflix. Alias Grace is based on a true story, explored and unravelled with all of Margaret Atwood’s trademark subtlety and ambiguity. But, of course, you should read the book first, and it’s available in this stunning hardback edition.


Baking with Kafka
Baking with Kafka
by Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld is a regular cartoonist for The New Yorker, The New York Times, New Scientist and The Guardian, amongst others, and I love his signature wry, fatalistic humour. In Baking with Kafka, he explores important questions like: How do you get published during a skeleton apocalypse? What was the secret of Kafka’s lemon drizzle cake? And, What plot possibilities does the exploding e-cigarette offer modern mystery writers?

The Lost words
The Lost Words
by Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by Jackie Morris

We’ve heard that terms relating to the natural world are disappearing from the dictionary as they fall out of use: words like dandelion, otter, bramble and acorn. The Lost Words is a collection of acrostic spell-poems, exquisitely illustrated by Jackie Morris, created with the intention of reclaiming these words and ‘re-wilding the language of children’. (It’s also a gigantic book – two feet high!)


A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles 

On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, his life is only spared because he once wrote a socialist-sympathising poem. Over the next forty years the Count makes a life within the confines of the hotel against the backdrop of a politically tumultuous period in Russian history. The first half is quite anecdotal, but if you persevere the main impetus of the narrative becomes clear in the second half and the final chapters are sublime. A Gentleman in Moscow is available in this stunning black and gold hardback edition.

The Bear and the Nightingale
The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1)
by Katherine Arden

For lovers of fantasy, Vasya lives in a small village in the woods in northern Russia. She has grown up hearing stories of the ‘Winter King’, a Russian equivalent of Jack Frost: ‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’ In addition to her wild wandering in the woods, Vasya has special gifts – she alone can see the household spirits that protect their home and she can talk to horses. When a young, fervent Christian priest arrives in their village and turns people against the old gods and superstitions, he upsets the balance of nature and unwittingly prepares the way for one much more dangerous than the Winter King. Vasya must remain free of societal constraints to protect her family and her village from this threat. This story reads like a beautifully woven Russian folk tale – thrillingly atmospheric, lyrical and otherworldly.

The Language of Thorns
The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic
by Leigh Bardugo, illustrated by Sara Kipin 

For your teenager, whether they are familiar with the world of Leigh Bardugo’s ‘Grishaverse’ or not, they will enjoy the lavish illustrations and beguiling tales of ‘dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a love-struck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.’

A Skinful of Shadows
A Skinful of Shadows
by Frances Hardinge

My go-to book for children’s birthday presents last year was Frances Hardinge’s superb novel, The Lie Tree. Her new book is out and available in a striking hardback edition. A Skinful of Shadows is the story of twelve-year-old Makepeace, a ‘bear-hearted girl’ who becomes possessed by a spirit which gives her strength when she is sent away to live with rich and powerful relatives and faces the possibility of civil war. But it’s not just for the kids, Hardinge is a mesmerising storyteller and I’ll definitely be reading this one too.


Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
by Elena Favilli, Francesca Cavallo

A great empowering feminist read for your daughter, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is the result of a viral crowdfunding campaign to highlight strong female role models in books. It is vibrantly illustrated by sixty female artists from all over the world, and introduces us to one hundred remarkable women and their inspirational lives, including Ada Lovelace, Malala, Amelia Earhart and Michelle Obama.


Best Book Cover Designs 2015

It is always interesting to see book cover design themes that recur in any particular year—last year was all about bright print process colours: cyan and magenta in particular, and correspondingly bright coloured page edges. This year the palettes are a bit subtler, but there are loads of interesting textures and a continued referencing of the design and printing process itself—a celebration of the medium as well as the message. Long live beautiful books.

These are some of my favourite cover designs of 2015—in particular, designs that are attractive but also appropriate to the content. I have credited the illustrator/designer where I have been able to find out who they are.


The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, designed by Pei Loi Koay (Bloomsbury)

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian societies are always grimly neon bright and plastic, and the colour scheme reflects this perfectly. The orange outfits and white bars also make reference to the penitentiary-orientated society of this book. There are a few things about this cover that seem maliciously intended to annoy graphic designers: the descender on the ‘g’ of Margaret Atwood that just dips below the white bars, and the white bars themselves that are not evenly spaced and are just slightly off the perpendicular—subtle enough that you don’t notice immediately but still creates a sense of unease, a sense that there is something not quite right. Perhaps, like the deliberate flaw in a Persian carpet, these ‘mistakes’ are meant to remind us to distrust the appearance of a perfect society when created by fallible human beings.

A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab (Tor Books – US, Titan Books – UK)

Most of these are UK editions, but I have to mention this stunning US edition of A Darker Shade of Magic. There is something so compelling about the overhead perspective of the main character travelling between different versions of London: perhaps it is the way the cloak forms a V that echoes the author’s initial, the balance of geometric shapes, the bold red and black colour scheme, the subtly elegant typeface, or just the pitch-perfect harmony of the whole design.

The Ecliptic

The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood (Scribner)

The title of Benjamin Wood’s second novel is beautifully constructed, with sketched renderings of the mathematical structure of the font just visible. The disorientating interaction between island and the sky, in hypnotic concentric circles, tells you immediately that all is not as it seems on this island.



Don’t Try This at Home by Angela Readman (And Other Stories)

Kudos to And Other Stories who have broken away from their initial signature look of bold geometric shapes and created another brand that is just as striking and distinctive. I particularly love the Jackalope motif on Angela Readman’s debut short story collection. These book covers would make gorgeous wallpaper or upholstery—I quite fancy a Jackalope cushion. (This is meant as a compliment, just to clarify.)


One Point Two Billion by Mahesh Rao, designed by Jonny Pelham (Daunt Books)

The retro matchbox design cover of Mahesh Rao’s short story collection, a riot of colour and variation, immediately tells you that these stories will be anything but monotonous.


The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (Salt)

Another great retro-style design, the slightly distressed rendering of a wholesome image and the sinister addition of the gun suggests that the protagonist of Paul McVeigh’s debut novel will have some challenges to overcome. And there are those concentric circles again, in this case a target perhaps.

The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man by Miranda July (Canongate)

A minimalist typographic approach always makes a bold statement, particularly with a book that is difficult to categorise like Miranda July’s The First Bad Man (I shudder to imagine an illustrative representation of some of the scenes from this book.) The bright yellow stripe highlights a quote from AM Holmes—one of the few authors you could possibly compare Miranda July to.


Randall by Jonathan Gibbs (Galley Beggar)

Another striking monochrome and yellow cover, Randall is a book about art and artists but the designer makes a wise decision to eschew any illustration other than blotches of the artist’s signature yellow paint.

Everything is Teeth 1

Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner (Jonathan Cape)

Every single page of this graphic memoir is worth savouring and I particularly enjoyed the contrast of Joe Sumner’s Tim Burtonesque caricatures of Evie and her family, with his more lifelike sketches of the sharks drifting surreally through Evie’s recollections.


The Fox and the Star

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith (Penguin)

It is the Waterstones Book of the Year so it hardly needs mentioning, but The Fox and the Star is just so beautiful I can’t resist. Inspired by the designs of William Morris and the stories of William Blake, every page is exquisitely rendered.

The Best Book Cover Designs of 2012

Since this is the time of year for lists I thought I’d add my opinion on the best book covers of the year (published in the UK). With the rise of Indie publishing and the easy DIY cut-and-paste photographic options provided by stock art websites, the stand-out covers for me this year were primarily graphic illustrations with custom typefaces. In no particular order…

Will Self-UmbrellaUmbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury – August 2012)
This is one of my absolute favourites – a broken umbrella is a useless, pathetic object but in this context it is rendered iconic and beautiful. The monchromatic palette and subtle texture makes this cover stand out next to a slew of busy, brightly coloured books. The nostalgic slab-serif title alternately grips and fades behind the contour of the umbrella. Lovely.



Alison Moore-The LighthouseThe Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt – August 2012)
Another Booker shortlisted book, the image is beautifully framed, the weight of the monolith is offset by the light-weight font and intersecting lines.





Hawthorn & ChildHawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta – July 2012)
In my opinion the most striking and original cover this year. You don’t find an image like this on stockart websites. Intriguing and disturbing.





Telegraph AvenueTelegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate – September 2012)
Bright, bold and fun.








NW by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton – August 2012)
Iconic, instantly recognisable, almost hypnotic.






Ned Beauman-The Teleportation AccidentThe Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (Sceptre – July 2012)
Love the twenties-meets-cubism feel here.







Joy - Jonathan LeeJoy by Jonathan Lee (William Heinemann – June 2012)
The exhuberance of the title word contrasts beautifully with the mundane materials that have been used to construct it – staples on an office folder.






Hope a TragedyHope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (Picador – February 2012)
Subtle and beautifully crafted.







Black Bread White Beer - Niven GovindenBlack Bread White Beer by Niven Govinden (The Friday Project – September 2012)
I love the hand-drawn, collaged effect. It’s hard to pull this off without making it look like a pre-school mess so I think the designer did a great job here.





Lightning Rods - Helen DeWittLightning Rods by Helen DeWitt (And Other Stories – September 2012)
Honourable mention needs to be made of And Other Stories and their bold, graphic covers. The designs are not particularly exciting on an individual basis but together they create a very strong visual identity for the brand and, for my money, I think they did a better job on Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, than Faber and Faber did with their generic ‘woman in swimming pool’ stock.



The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Little, Brown – September 2012)
And one that didn’t quite measure up to expectation – it has the fashionable bold graphic look and the customised type but somehow it lacks the personality of some of the designs above. Almost, but not quite.