The one to make you laugh so hard you’ll forget it’s cold outside: Scoop by Evelyn Waugh. I’d defy anyone not to howl with laughter reading this bonkers story. A mix-up in Fleet Street results in a bumbling nature journalist being sent to cover an African crisis. Cue satire of the highest order. Waugh’s mocking tone is counterbalanced by a pitch-perfect lightness of touch and rich dollops of ridiculousness. Just perfect.
Runner up: My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl. Curiously neglected, this comic gem is Dahl at his silliest. The uncle of the title is a priapic raconteur who sets up a rather unusual black market… for sperm. Totally absurd and ribald it may be, but it’s guaranteed to make you guffaw.
The one that’s as bleak as the weather: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. This masterful novella is no easy read. It asks troubling questions about how to live with integrity, whether the trappings of ‘a good life’ bring any solace at the end and – shockingly – what it feels like to die. Tolstoy deftly sums up an ordinary life and then devastatingly unveils its end.
Runner up: The Dead by James Joyce (in Dubliners). Another short story, this heart-breaking tale recounts a lost love and the repercussions that youthful folly can visit on adulthood.
The one that will transport you to summer: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. Tove Jansson is having a bit of a moment this year: there are two exhibitions of her work planned in London, one at the Southbank Centre, the other the Dulwich Picture Gallery. But she isn’t just about the Moomins. This delightful novel tells the story of a young girl’s summer sojourn with her grandmother to a Finnish island. They wander through pine-scented forests, swim in cool seas, build boats and study insects. Charming and unpretentious, this is one for fans of hygge.
Runner up: Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell. With touches of Nancy Mitford, Barbara Pym and PG Wodehouse, Angela Thirkell’s sparkling prose recounts misunderstandings and mishaps in a particularly English way.
The one to take you back to childhood: The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones. Whether or not you read them as a child, Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books are a delight. Set in a wizarding world, but one utterly different from Harry Potter, they are funny, sophisticated and spell-bindingly involving. This one is a perfect introduction, complete with parallel worlds, magical castles and powerful sorcerers.
Runner up: The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. Another tale of alternative universes, The Magic Faraway Tree is perennially cosy. Kick back with Moonface, Silky et al and clamber the branches to a made-up world where nothing can ever go too wrong.
The one that’s pure escapism: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. The original bodice-ripper, Forever Amber charts the fortunes of a rebellious young woman in Restoration England. Amber is cunning, resourceful and full of feminine wiles – but will it be enough to win the affection of the man she loves? Full of rich detail and delicious romps, this is a book to devour on wintry evenings.
Runner up: Katherine by Anya Seton. Another historical novel, Katherine focuses on the rather more chaste and pious thirteenth century. With cameos from Chaucer and Julian of Norwich, its high-brow touches don’t diminish from pure page-turning pleasure.