Book reviews: Have yourself a quirky little Christmas!

Classic Tails by Elizabeth Garrett
Classic Tails by Elizabeth Garrett
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And now for something completely different! Take a walk on the wild side this Christmas with a gloriously offbeat selection of gorgeous gift books for both adults and children.

From a stunning modern fairy tale and the ‘ugly’ stars of a modern children’s classic to an all-animal retelling of the literary greats and a wonderfully inventive knit one, purl one protest, there is a book here for cynics, dreamers and would-be revolutionaries.

Classic Tails by Elizabeth Garrett

We all have our favourite classic novels… books that have been beloved since childhood, those wonderful stories with a rich tapestry of characters that are unsurpassed in modern literature. So how, you may ask, could these marvellous works ever be improved upon?

Reader, ask no more... for Elizabeth Garrett (an author who describes herself as cat/canine book enthusiast and self-styled ‘voice for the hirsute voiceless’) presents the greatest works of literature, as told by the finest breeds, in this cute, clever, quirky and beautifully illustrated collection of gift books.

Be blown away by Pugs & Prejudice, a canine account which has everything you adored about Jane Austen’s classic novel – the wit, the warmth, the love story – but with everything the original lacked, including a colourful cast of adorable pugs dressed head to paw in Georgian clothing, a vivacious Mrs Bennet with a litter of five daughters and a Mr Darcy who is even more lovable with a fuzzy muzzle!

Meet F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Catsby as you have never before seen him! All alone in his moggy mansion, millionaire Jay Catsby throws extravagant parties attended by the great and the good of the feline world. What nobody knows is that this is a kitty haunted by love – the love of a beautiful pussycat called Daisy, whom he lost to another long ago. When Daisy’s cousin Nick moves in next door, it seems like Catsby is a whisker away from winning back his beloved. But Daisy’s husband Tomcat has other ideas...

Head off to fair Purrona in Romeow and Juliet and discover two furry families at war. When Romeow, the son of Montamew, sneaks into a Cattulet ball, he falls in love with beautiful Juliet, the daughter of his father’s sworn enemy. So begins the tale of two star-crossed kitties who must defy this feline feud to try and live – or die – together. Purrfect for Shakespeare fans!

And finally, make the acquaintance of Dorian Greyhound, the best of his breed… good-tempered, beautiful and pure of heart. Basil Basset, an artist, paints a portrait that reflects the very essence of Dorian’s soul. But soon Dorian befriends selfish hedonist Lord Henry Wooffon, and then the moral corruption of this sweet creature begins. On the outside, Dorian remains young and sleek but as his naughtiness increases, the portrait starts to reveal the extent of his inner decay. A totally wild interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s groundbreaking novel!

(Wildfire, hardback, £7.99 each)

Ad Astra: An Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet by Dallas Campbell

Leading space broadcaster Dallas Campbell takes a giant leap into the mysteries of the universe in this eclectic and beautifully illustrated blend of space travel stories – both real and imagined.

Campbell is a true space nut… he has presented some of the most ambitious landmark series across the BBC, such as City In The Sky with Dr Hannah Fry and Stargazing Live with Dara O'Briain and Brian Cox, which included broadcasting astronaut Tim Peake’s historic live launch to the International Space Station.

Not content to sit quietly on Earth, Campbell has garnered his knowledge and interviews with the likes of astronauts, scientists and politicians to bring us this hilarious, informative and deeply impractical guide to getting off the planet.

For almost all human history, he declares, we have been firmly rooted to the Earth. And it has got some good things going for it, he tells us… nice views, friendly inhabitants, good coffee and air. But what if you need some space and want to get off?

So whether you’ve got itchy feet and need a bit of a break, or you are looking for a complete change of scene, this book has all the information you will need to leave, with free expert advice from the movers and shakers who can actually make it happen.

Do I need a passport? How do I know if I have the right stuff? Can I take my dog? What spacesuit do I need? Where am I going to go? What am I going to eat?

From the migrating lunar geese that flew us to the moon in the 1600s to Elon Musk’s wild plan to get humans to Mars en masse in the future, and from the history of early rocket science to the Soviet tortoises that secretly won the space race, this is the perfect gift for anyone who has looked up in wonder at the stars... and then wondered how to get there!

(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £16.99)

Really Cross Stitch by Rayna Fahey

If you are fed up of protesting with banners and signs, why not channel all that anger and outrage into a pretty, decorative border?

Inspired by marches around the world, radical crafter, organiser and activist Rayna Fahey’s ingenious and inventive Really Cross Stitch lets protesters get their needles into 40 truly original cross stitch designs that might just speak louder than the written word.

Stitching for public protest is not new. First-wave feminists in the US and in Britain used needlework in their demonstrations and public protest lectures during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Needlework and other handcrafts, however, declined throughout the 20th century, with second-wave feminists arguing against ‘the oppression of the needle.’ In the 21st century, however, there has been a steep resurgence and many are turning to crafting, especially needlework, as an activist strategy. In Knitting for Good, feminist Betsy Greer makes this point strongly when she proclaims, ‘I think every act of making is an act of revolution.’

Along with some snarky commentary and general annoyance, this quirky book also contains instructions on techniques for novice stitchers.

And have you been on a march recently, or do you know someone who has? Are you in despair and want to work out your issues with some wool? Stay in the loop and protest in style with Geraldine Warner’s Protest Knits.

From pussy hats to protest scarfs and political pin cushions to shy anarchist socks, make your point with a crochet hook or pair of knitting needles. From the easy peasy to the more complex, there are more than 15 projects here for some crafty therapy.

Knitting and handicrafts have a long history in protesting. In Canada, there is the Revolutionary Knitting Circle, which first made headlines for their protest at the 2002 G8 summit. Australia has the Knitting Nannas, who protest about environmental issues by holding ‘knit-ins.’

In the UK, activists from Wool Against Weapons knitted a seven-mile-long pink ‘peace scarf’ to protest against the country’s Trident nuclear weapon programme. Then, a year later, they repurposed it into thousands of blankets for those in need in war zones and developing nations.

And in Chile, it’s the hombres tejedores (knitting men) who break down stereotypes and teach other men to embrace the creative hobby. In cities across the world, ‘yarn bombing’ reclaims urban spaces with a pair of needles, covering everyday items in brightly coloured knits.

Like other forms of graffiti, yarn bombing can convey a message of protest, or it can just be street art for the sake of art. Knitting for change is a global activity. So get your needles and hooks out and change the world!

(Herbert Press, hardback, £9.99 each)

A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris

‘A named thing is a tamed thing.

You lied, and you betrayed me.

Worse than that, you named me.

You named me, then you cast me aside.’

Joanne M. Harris, author of Chocolat, the best-selling book which was turned into an equally seductive film, draws on nature and folklore in this original, haunting and exquisite modern fairy tale.

Combining the harshness of nature with the spookiness of a ghost story and the cosiness of a great folk tale, this beautiful novella is a masterpiece of rich, rhythmic storytelling and powerful imagination, all brought to life by the stunning black and white illustrations of Bonnie Helen Hawkins.

An unnamed girl wanders the forest alone, hunting to survive. It is love that draws her into a world of named, tamed things. And it is only revenge that will be powerful enough to let her escape.

Brimming with traditional themes like love, loss and revenge, and following the age-old course of the seasons, A Pocketful of Crows balances youth and age, wisdom and passion, and draws on nature and folklore to weave a mesmerising modern mythology around a nameless wild girl.

Elegantly packaged and sprinkled with magic, this is the perfect gift for all lovers of folklore, fantasy and fine writing.

(Gollancz, hardback, £12.99)

Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry

The Greek myths are the greatest stories ever told, passed down through millennia and inspiring writers and artists as varied as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, James Joyce and Walt Disney.

From the birth of the universe to the creation of humankind, they are embedded deeply in the traditions, tales and cultural DNA of the West. No one loves and quarrels, desires and deceives as boldly and brilliantly as Greek gods and goddesses. They are like us, only more so… their actions and adventures scrawled across the heavens above.

Award-winning comedian, actor, presenter and director, Stephen Fry fell in love with the tales when he was just a child and now he has put pen to paper to bring us these unforgettable myths and legends in a fascinating retelling for the modern age.

In Fry’s hands the stories of the titans and gods become a brilliantly entertaining account of ribaldry and revelry, warfare and worship, debauchery, love affairs and life lessons, slayings and suicides, triumphs and tragedies.

Marvel at the birth of Athena, wince at Cronus and Gaia’s revenge on Ouranos, weep with King Midas and hunt with the beautiful and ferocious Artemis. Witness Athena born from the cracking open of Zeus’ great head, follow Persephone down into the dark realm of Hades, experience the terrible and endless fate of Prometheus after his betrayal of Zeus and shiver as Pandora opens her jar of evil torments.

Brimming with tragedy, comedy, fun and the fickleness of fate, Fry’s informative and often moving Mythos captures these stories for the modern age in all their rich and deeply human relevance.

(Michael Joseph, hardback, £20)

The Ugly Five by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

If you thought the Gruffalo was scary, take a look at these beastly beasts!

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, one of the world’s top children’s books teams, have been busy creating the Ugly Five, the African animals with a reputation for being a little grisly and grotesque.

It was while she was on safari during a South African book tour that Donaldson was introduced to the much-admired ‘Big Five’ animals… the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. But the author was much more intrigued by the ‘Ugly Five’ and has now made them the stars of a captivating picture book.

So meet wildebeest and warthog, lappet-faced vulture, spotted hyena and marabou stork. Some people might call them ugly but this line-up of strange-looking beasts are set to become the latest classic characters in the world of picture books.

(Scholastic, hardback, £12.99)

13½ Incredible Things You Need to Know About Everything

Some facts are interesting, some are amazing… and some are simply mind-blowing!

Let your youngsters discover the world as they have never seen it before with this quirky collection of extraordinary images and irresistible facts from DK (Dorling Kindersley), a publisher that has a well-deserved reputation for delivering beautifully designed, produced and illustrated children’s books.

Each image in this magnificent, hard-wearing book has 13 mind-blowing facts plus the added bonus of a little myth-buster about every topic under (and including) the sun, transporting readers on an incredible factual adventure.

From spacesuits to snowboards, rocks to Romans, and dinosaurs to the digestive system, the random page order means you never know where this book will take you next.

(DK, hardback, £14.99)

I Am Bat by Morag Hood

Cherry picking your toddlers’ picture books this Christmas could bear fruit with this perfectly batty tale from the super talented Morag Hood.

It seems everyone is a suspect (even the reader!) in this clever, comical adventure which stars a quirky, adorably petulant and over-protective bat trying to hunt down a thief.

This bold, colourful and very funny book, stunningly printed with eye-poppingly bright pantone inks is destined to be an instant winner with children and adults alike. Grown-ups and children will love the surreal depictions of everyday settings and situations, often with hilarious results.

Quirky, colourful and joyously entertaining, all the family will be smiling when they share story time with Bat!

(Two Hoots, hardback, £11.99)

Mixed-Up Masterpieces: Funny Faces

Faces come in all shapes and forms… so imagine what fun it would be to mix and match them!

Take your kids on a trip to the British Museum and let them ‘flip’ their way through some of its greatest treasures with this intriguing and entertaining photographic mix-up book featuring fascinating faces from the museum’s huge collection of sculptures, masks and artwork.

Mixed-Up Masterpieces: Funny Faces offers hours of page-flipping creativity and is part of an exclusive partnership between the British Museum and children’s publisher Nosy Crow.

The collection includes board books, non-fiction, craft and activity titles inspired by the vast and unparalleled collection of objects in the museum collection, and celebrating different cultures around the world.

(Nosy Crow, hardback, £9.99)

British Museum: Colours and Opposites

Nosy Crow and the British Museum have also combined their skills in two wonderfully colourful and quirky board books, Colours and Opposites, which aim to encourage the very youngest children to engage with early learning concepts.

Featuring artefacts from cultures around the world, these sturdy learning books create a stunning, offbeat mini-library for toddlers to enjoy. Learn the colours of the rainbow, and explore contrast and opposites – black and white, and big and small – with gorgeous photographic images of intriguing museum artefacts.

From thousand-year-old relics like an ancient Iraqi helmet and beautiful works of art to 20th century toys including a Mexican pottery crocodile, Egyptian jewellery and African instruments, these are visually exciting images which aim to stimulate young minds and imaginations.

(Nosy Crow, board book, £6.99 each)