Tis the season to be reading

The Christmas Number One

What will be top bestseller this year? Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Bloomsbury, 5.99) looks a safe bet, but also in the running is Delia Smith’s How To Cook: Book Three (BBC, 18.99), latest in a series that has consistently hit the Yuletide jackpot. Last year’s surprise hit was text-message book Wan2tlk? (O’Mara, 1.99), successfully flogged from till-side displays like sweeties at a supermarket check-out. This year’s novelty aspirants include Ringtone Mania (Omnibus, 4.95) - a guide to reprogramming your mobile so as to make it even more irritating - and Office Kama Sutra (Chronicle, 9.99), from the publisher that brought us last year’s Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. More likely to make the top three, though, is a perennial favourite and last year’s number one: Guinness World Records (Guinness, 10pb/19.50hb), which is an ideal Christmas present for any hard-to-please kid, just as long as nobody else beats you to it.

Food and Drink

Delia weighs in with How To Cook: Book Three (BBC, 18.99), hotly pursued by Jamie Oliver’s Happy Days with the Naked Chef (Michael Joseph, 20) and the massively promoted Nigella Bites (Chatto and Windus, 20). But there are plenty of other tasty books on offer, with Nobu: The Cookbook (Quadrille, 25) one to watch. Nobu Matsushisa’s London restaurant attracts star diners including Madonna and Kate Winslet with a unique fusion of Japanese and South American cuisine and Nobu’s book reveals what the celebrity diners pay top dollar for. If you want something a little more homely, try Good Fast Family Food (Hamlyn, 14.99). And for a really classy gift, there’s the unbeatable Larousse Gastronomique (Hamlyn, 60), in a handsome new slip-cased edition.

Boozy books are everywhere, but one that particularly caught my eye is The Dedalus Book of Absinthe by Phil Barker (Dedalus, 9.99). Coming from the publisher that brought us The Decadent Cookbook, this new volume explores the scandalous history of the bohemian beverage that’s bound to be the cause of a few festive hangovers.

Humour

Be sure to look out for Ali G’s Massive (Fourth Estate, 12), a stylish, glossy tome that’s not for the easily offended, but will appeal to fans of the controversial comedian, offering advice on surviving "da Barkshire ghetto". A sure hit with those of morbid taste is The Darwin Awards: Volume 2 (Orion, 9.99). The honour is given annually to people who have managed to die in the most idiotic ways, such as attaching rocket engines to their car in a fatally successful attempt to go faster.

Novels by comedians are always in ample supply, but don’t bother with Ben Elton’s Dead Famous (Bantam, 16.99), which scarcely raises a chuckle. A better bet is Stephen Fry’s The Stars’ Tennis Balls (Arrow, 6.99pb/16.99hb). And of course there are all those "Little" books to fob off on acquaintances who don’t merit anything more expensive, with curry and lager being among the latest options in a series that shows no sign of abating.

Children

For the very young, Rusty The Dog (Usborne, 7.99) is delightful. The boxed package offers a toy dog complete with the book in which he stars. For over-sixes, two "pop-up" books are outstanding. Dr Optic’s Amazing Illusions Display Book (Macmillan, 14.99) opens to reveal magic specs, 3-D pictures, a zoetrope and more. My Fairy Garden Display Book (Macmillan, 14.99) folds out into a miniature world that has to be seen to be believed. Both these books are masterpieces of ingenious paper sculpture and my young reviewers loved them.

Annuals are a traditional Christmas hit, with The Beano (DC Thomson, 6.25) the top title. But spin-off annuals are taking an increasingly big slice of the market, and Bob the Builder (Egmont, 5.99) is a sure-fire winner with pre-schoolers.

The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter (David Colbert, Puffin, 5.99) offers yet more of the ubiquitous wizard, and the new movie of Lord of The Rings makes Tolkien equally inescapable this Christmas. Among the many tie-ins of possible appeal to teenage fantasy lovers is Myth & Magic: The Art of John Howe (HarperCollins, 19.99), about the renowned Tolkien illustrator.

Nature

TV series spawn tempting titles. The Blue Planet (BBC, 24.99) is a suitably impressive accompaniment to the blockbusting series that took us into the watery depths; Walking with Beasts (BBC, 19.99) is also good, even if fluffy extinct creatures don’t have quite the same kid-appeal as dinosaurs. For a similar theme, try Extinct (Channel 4, 20).

The year’s big science title is Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell (Bantam, 20), the sequel to A Brief History of Time. The glossy coffee-table format makes this highly giveable, though don’t expect the recipient to understand it. Paul Davies’s How to Build a Time Machine (Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 9.99) is more readable.

Gardening books tend to go into hibernation at this time of year, but a good gift for the green fingered is Maggie Campbell-Culver’s The Origin of Plants (Headline, 25), which explains how familiar varieties reached our shores. And for die-hard anglers, an unusual reference is Flies for Salmon by Chris Mann and Robert Gillespie (Merlin Unwin, 20), containing illustrations of every feathered lure you could possibly imagine.

Biographies

The celebrity biog is a risky venture whose financial perils are summed up in the words "Anthea Turner". This year, though, the turkeys are more likely to be on our tables than in the bookshops, with plenty of good gift possibilities here for star-watchers. Bruce Forsyth, Victoria Beckham, Cher and Frank Skinner are just a few telling their own stories, with Pamela Stephenson’s Billy (Harper Collins, 17.99) the hottest title of the bunch.

Andrew Morton, whose Posh & Becks (O’Mara, 5.99pb/16.99hb) was last year’s biggest selling biography, enters a more crowded field this year with Madonna (Michael O’Mara, 18). Fans may prefer Randy Taborelli’s version (Sidgwick, 16.99). And as an accompaniment to Posh’s Learning to Fly (Michael Joseph, 16.99), try Julie Burchill’s pocket-sized analysis of hubby, On Beckham (Yellow Jersey, 10).

For those who turn their noses up at such stuff, but who still want to read about people on telly, there is a raft of ostensibly weightier memoirs by news pundits. Take your pick from John Simpson, Kate Adie, Michael Brunson or - best of all - John Sergeant, whose Give Me Ten Seconds (Macmillan, 20) reveals that he nearly became a comedian - which, of course, is ideal preparation for Westminster.

Roy Jenkins’ Churchill (Macmillan, 30) should keep a few granddads quiet during Top of the Pops this Christmas. But for the real book lover in your life, try The Letters of Gustave Flaubert (Picador, 20); or for something more modern but just as entertaining, The Tynan Diaries (edited by John Lahr, Bloomsbury, 25).

Literature

Even more subjective than humour, fiction is a high-risk gift category. But try Ian McEwan’s Atonement (Jonathan Cape, 16) - the year’s best novel - or Jonathan Frantzen’s The Corrections (Fourth Estate, 17.99), recently rushed into the shops following the author’s highly publicized spat with his ex-number-one fan, Oprah Winfrey. John Irving’s The Fourth Hand (Bloomsbury, 16.99) and Helen Dunmore’s The Siege (Viking, 16.99) are great reads, and Jasper Fforde’s literary detective novel The Eyre Affair (Hodder & Stoughton, 6.99) is huge fun. For poetry, I’d recommend Wendy Cope’s If I Don’t Know (Faber, 14.99).

History and Politics

Michael Fry’s Scottish Empire (Tuckwell Press, 25) was warmly praised by Alex Salmond in these pages recently; James Naughtie’s The Rivals (Fourth Estate, 16.99) lifts the lid on the Blair-Brown relationship in an entertaining way. For reference, The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History (Barry Cunliffe, Penguin, 22.50) shows our islands’ stories in stunning graphic form.

Stocking Fillers

Steven Appleby’s Encyclopaedia of Personal Problems (Bloomsbury, 7.99) is the cartoonist’s amusing take on life’s ups and downs. Richard Lewis’s The Encyc-lopaedia of Cult Child-ren’s TV (Allison & Busby, 9.99) is a genuine reference book, wittily written and on a nicely small scale, that will keep you browsing as you recall Blockbusters, Rainbow, or even the "sinister, creepy" Ludwig.