by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)
In this curated list of winter book recommendations, I'm sharing books where the season of winter is a pivotal part of the story. (Actually, in two of them, Fredrik Backman's Anxious People and Margarita Montimore's Oona Out of Order, the new year specifically is an important part of the story.) These are not necessarily cozy reads (though some of them are perfect for that!), and the tone, style, and subject matter of each one stands apart from the others, but if you're looking for books in which winter is a significant part of the story, you can certainly find a pick that would work for you among these recommendations.
Fredrik Backman's Anxious People - This one, which came out in September, centers on a bank-robbery-turned-hostage-situation that takes place during an apartment viewing on New Year's Eve. I'm thankful to Libro.fm for an ALC of the audio—the narration is stellar! I absolutely loved the way that the strangers in this book come to understand and care about each other. This one caused me to laugh out loud and to shed tears, and it was a lovely and poignant depiction of the way we all need each other. This was a five-star read for me! Beartown is also an excellent winter read that focuses on a small-town junior hockey league. It was one of my favorite reads from 2019 and one of my picks for episode 110 where we recommended winter books.
Joseph Boyden's Wenjack - This powerful novella focuses on the residential schools for Native children in Canada. It's a haunting, vivid portrayal of one Ojibwe boy who escapes the school and attempts a solo journey back to his home amid a bleak winter landscape. While it is a fictional telling, the harrowing journey of Chanie Wenjack and his attempt to escape residential schooling for Indigenous children in Canada in 1966 is a true account upon which this story is based. From the tender depiction of Chanie to the lovely portrayal of the natural world and the spirits within it who bear witness to his journey, I loved everything about this one.
Shea Ernshaw's Winterwood - In this riveting YA story set amid a bleak landscape, teen Nora Walker, who comes from a long line of strong women, lives largely alone in a cabin in the harsh winter woods. She believes herself to be lacking the special powers that have been present in other women in her lineage, but the woods still take care of her and reveal to her things that are lost to others. On one of her walks in the forest, she discovers Oliver Huntsman, a boy everyone in the nearby community believes to be missing. From that moment of the discovery, a complicated set of events begins to unfold. This one also has a spooky feel, so I shared it on episode 97, our 2019 Spooky Reads recommendations.
Neil Gaiman's American Gods - I have yet to be disappointed by a Neil Gaiman book. This one is a fascinating story focusing on Shadow, a man who learns, upon getting out of prison after three years, that his wife was having an affair and died in the car with her lover. His life takes an abrupt turn as he meets a mysterious man, Wednesday, who offers him a job. Enter magic and myths. This is a story of old gods and new gods, of loyalty and worship and human nature, and it is a fascinating ride. I talked about this one (as well as Backman's Beartown, mentioned above) in episode 110, where we highlighted winter books, so be sure to check that out!
Karina Yan Glaser's The Vanderbeekers at 141st Street - I absolutely loved this middle-grade book and the sweet family around which the events center. This one focuses on a hard time for the Vanderbeekers, who live in a Harlem brownstone apartment with their five children and three pets, as they face an abrupt and imminent relocation because of a lease that will not be renewed for the next year. I talked about this one recently on the podcast as a great pick for a seasonal read during episode 154, when we discussed our December book club pick, Christina Lauren's In a Holidaze. (Note that I was sorry to discover later that I mispronounced the author's name—it's Yan (rhymes with Tan) Glaser (rhymes with blazer) as she shares on her website). This series is cozy and sweet and would be a great book to read together as a family.
Brigid Kemmerer's A Curse So Dark and Lonely - This YA fantasy book, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, focuses on Harper, a courageous teen from our world dealing with many hardships including financial and emotional turmoil, family instability, and living with cerebral palsy. One night while standing watch for her brother, she unexpectedly finds herself pulled into the kingdom of Emberfall within an entirely different world, where she will learn about Prince Rhen's curse and about the efforts he and his companion Gray are taking to save the kingdom. This is an outstanding YA lit fantasy series, and I look forward to getting back to it soon! I've heard great things about A Heart So Fierce and Broken, and the third one, A Vow So Bold and Deadly, comes out in January, so this is a great time to get caught up!
Margarita Montimore's Oona Out of Order - This speculative fiction story centers on Oona's unusual life, where she time leaps each New Year into a different age. After a bizarre experience at a New Year's Eve party in 1982, she finds herself waking up to a totally new life (as a much older person) 32 years later. Over time, Oona discovers that her life is not experienced in a sequential way, although she has to relearn much of this at the start of each time leap as the New Year's clock strikes midnight. All she has each year is the 365 days within that year before she finds herself living another year in a totally different part of her life's chronology. (I'm discovering that it's difficult to describe this premise—but trust me that this is a fascinating read!) Although there are many limitations to a life lived this way, Oona finds ways to cope and to celebrate the beautiful aspects life that we sometimes forget to enjoy. I listened to this one on audio and loved the narration.
Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping - The harsh rural winter environment is almost a character in this richly drawn story about two sisters who pass through the care of several adults after their mother commits suicide when they are quite young. It's a bleak but ultimately hopeful story about isolation, living in unconventional ways, and finding kinship in unlikely places. It was the first of Robinson's books that I read but will not be the last!
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