There's nothing much to write about at this time of year, with all work grinding to a halt under the weight of accumulated mince pies and chocolate biscuits, so I thought I'd do what proper journalists in posh newspapers do and fill space with a round-up of the cultural high points of 2009.
If the world of children's books were a Christmas tree, Geraldine McCaughrean would be the angel on the top, and her latest, The Death Defying Pepper Roux, is also one of her best. Set in France round about 1910, this is a funny and touching story about a boy who has been told by his horrible family that he is going to die on his fourteenth birthday. When the dreadful day arrives he runs away in the hope of escaping his fate, and finds a series of new identities for himself, helped and hindered by an eccentric cast of supporting characters. Like so many of GM's heroes he is a kind of holy fool, whose innocence both gets him into trouble and helps him to get out of it again. And like so many of her books this one can be read once for the story, with its page-turning cliff-hangers and reversals of fortune, and then again to savour the sheer brilliance of her writing.
I wasn't averse to reading 'girl's books' when I was a boy, but for some reason I never got around to Frances Hodgson Burnet's The Little Princess. But that didn't stop me enjoying Hilary McKay's new sequel to it, Waiting for Tomorrow, which as funny and charming a book as you could hope to curl up with on a winter's afternoon. It's set in the same tiny Edwardian girl's boarding school as the original, and weaves its story out of the friendships and frustrations of the pupils and staff, and also of the irrepressible Alice, a servant straight out of Ealing comedy. With its pink cover and all-girl cast it's unlikely to be read by many boys, but that's their loss; it's brilliant.
The best adult book I've read this year was, bizarrely, published by David Fickling Books, a children's specialist. Margot Lanagan long ago proved herself to be a great writer with her weird and deeply unsettling short stories, collected in volumes like White Time and Black Juice. Tender Morsels is, I believe, her first novel, and it's an astonishing tour-de-force, plaiting elements of folklore and fairy-tale into a story which covers two generations and moves between two different imaginary worlds. The closest comparison I can think of would be with Angela Carter, but that would be slightly unfair to Ms Lanagan, who is a far better writer with a far more vivid imagination. But be warned: if the flopsy bunnies of the children's book world allowed age-ranges to printed on books, this one would carry an 18+. I'm 43+ and I still found some of Tender Morsels almost too grim and horrific to read.