A book surrounded by Christmas gifts, pinecones and holly


Fantasy world literature for 9-12 year olds, photographic collections at the Bodleian, and ultra-processed food are some of the topics in our Christmas gift recommendations.

Published: 13 December 2024

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Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundell

Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundell (St Catherine's, 2005) (Bloomsbury, September 2023)

The Renaissance literature studying, Quondam Fellow of All Souls and hugely acclaimed author of both children’s books and adult, is treading on the toes of Tolkien here with an entirely wrought fantasy world archipelago complete with a map and a beautifully illustrated bestiary of fantastic creatures. It’s children’s literature aimed at the 9-12 year olds, but adults may care to join in. A boy called Christopher rescues a baby griffin from a hidden lake, and that’s the point of departure for a tantalising adventure journey to the hidden world of the islands. There, he meets Mal, a girl on the run. Throughout, there is a lot of animal magic, as in this sequence:

Christopher’s head was still swimming. He looked at her face, to see if she could betrusted with the griffin, the finest living thing he’d ever met. She was, he saw, raw with panic and with love. He nodded.’

Philip Pullman has said of Rundell, ‘Readers who already know her books will seize this with delight, and new readers will love it and demand all her others at once.’


From Hope to Betrayal by Geoffrey Hayward, (Corpus, 1975) (i2i Publishing, November 2023)

Hope to Betrayal book cover

The author has written a properly immersive, nearly 600-page volume of historical fiction that evokes a period between the wars that is tantalisingly close, in lived human memory, while almost forgotten to a younger generation. From Hope to Betrayal transports you to Rishton, a small Lancashire cotton town, in the years between the Great Wars. Inspired by true events, the heroes of this story are a group of demobbed comrades returning home from the war, full of hope for the future. Hope is an unusual thing. It can pull you out of your darkest moments, push you towards your ultimate potential, and even convince you to invest in a lost cause.

In a time of turbulence and uncertainty, the people of Rishton search for meaning, and in the midst of war, pain, and hunger, hope drives them on. But the problem with hope is that it can open you up to betrayal. This story of a community explores grief, political awakenings, and pulling yourself up when life has other ideas, but the most important message is, even when it feels insurmountable, hope can always help you beat the odds. From Hope to Betrayal shows you the intricate experiences of the people of the working class, whilst giving you a taste of the people in power, and the many faces of humanity.


Julia Cameron

Julia Margaret Cameron: A Poetry of Photography by Nichole J. Fazio (Bodleian Publishing, 16 November 2023)

Renowned photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879 is famous for her evocative portraits of eminent Victorians, including John Herschel, Alfred Tennyson, Henry Taylor, George Frederic Watts, Ellen Terry and Julia Stephen.

Julia Margaret Cameron: A Poetry of Photography reveals how deeply she was convinced of the poetic possibilities of her medium, particularly its capacity for suggestive rather than literal meaning. She did not get it right on all counts, and her practice violated the aesthetic orthodoxy of the day. But the blurring of the ‘real’ subject before her lens created unparalleled possibilities for a broader pursuit of the sublime and beautiful.

Drawing on over 100 items from the photographic collections at the Bodleian Library and Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, as well as comparative works of art, this book celebrates a collection that illustrates the aesthetic development of the photographer from her earliest pictures to her most poetic photographs. It also includes her own poetry and the key images she created for her extraordinary Illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the

King, and Other Poems, further demonstrating an abiding appreciation for the unique aspects of the photographic medium. Author Nichole J. Fazio (Trinity, 2005) received her doctorate in History of Art from the University of Oxford, where she specialized in 19th-century British photography. She is currently the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Research and Scholars Programs at the University of Chicago.


In Memoriam by Alice Winn book cover

In Memoriam by Alice Winn, (St Peter's, 2012) (Viking, March 2023)

In 1914, war feels far away to Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood. They're too young to enlist, and anyway, Gaunt is fighting his own private battle - an all-consuming infatuation with the dreamy, poetic Ellwood - not having a clue that his best friend is in love with him, always has been.

When Gaunt's mother asks him to enlist in the British army to protect the family from anti-German attacks, he signs up immediately, relieved to escape his overwhelming feelings. But Ellwood and their classmates soon follow him into the horrors of trenches. Though Ellwood and Gaunt find fleeting moments of solace in one another, their friends are dying in front of them, and at any moment they could be next.

This story is one of the publishing sensations of 2023 and the novel has tugged at the heart strings of all critics. A fiction debut it so happens – this novel went straight to the top of the best seller charts. Need we say more about the value of an English literature degree from Oxford University?


Yellowface by Rebecca Kuang

Yellowface by R.F. Kuang (Univ, 2019) The Borough Press (Harper Collins), May 2023

With degrees from Cambridge and Oxford and currently at Yale pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literature, the author is also a Chinese-English translator. But what works so well here is her savvy attention to the blogosphere, the internet, social mnedia and stolen valour, the plopt revolving around a stolen manuscript published under a fake name. It all reads along very easily and one is suped along into a world that almost feels too familiar if you are on X a lot. The false parading as the truth. The actual belief in that narrative. What goes up doesn’t come down, and what goes down is the book’s denouement.

‘If only I could. I cannot unglue myself from my devices. Whenever I close my eyes, I still see that azure-blue screen. I still imagine the likes racking up pn yet another takedown thread about me.’

It’s amusing but it’s dystopic. We descend into a sort of flickering half life of social media hell, where being totally fraudulent will still win you half the debate, ‘because editors who want click-bait always solicit contrarian views.’ There’s no better way to read about it than with this handsome hardback book, solid and papery, in hand.



Ultra-processed People

Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken (St Peter's, 1996) (Cornerstone Press, April 2023)

This is a serious piece of work at a chunky, 376 pages. But of all the books we’ve seen in 2023 it might have the greatest relevance to the greatest number of alumni, and not least as we go into (I was going to write, ‘descend into’) the period of maximum eating and drinking. Far from wrecking the brussel sprouts it will entice you to more of them, possibly at the expense of a mass produced chocolate or anything else with a shelf life stretching into 2024. Of course the calories are cheaper than they were and what’s not to like about that in a world that can still remember back to rationing? Yet we’re now paying an extraordinary price for it all and none less so than when we simply don’t know – through ignorance – what we’re eating. That’s where Chris, who is already a celebrated broadcaster, comes in with an initial salvo burst to tell us what we might be eating and where ultra-processed foods (UPF) come from; then why we find it almost impossible to resist the temptation; then what it actually does to you; then what it means to a traditional wholefood diet; and finally what we might do in the face of all this. A lot of reviewers have used the word ‘irritating’ to describe how they felt reading it. That might be because they were chewing on a pop tart as they went. But the more obvious reason is because you feel had, as though all the regulations in the world, and there are now so many, entirely missed the most obvious culprit, rubbish food whose purpose is profit not human nutrition. You sort of have to read this book before Christmas so that it doesn’t cripple you, come January. It’s funny too and sparkles with journalistic stories, so just plunge in and come out feeling better, like a cold water swim.



Off the Shelf typically concerns books where there is an Oxford connection, whether the place, the University or of course the author. Our editorial selection rests on books appealing to the broadest alumni audience.

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