Winter reads – a few favourites from the shelves

A few weeks ago, I posted a piece on some of my favourite autumn reads, books such as R.C. Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and an anthology of short stories, American Midnight – Tales of the Dark. Now that the weather has turned colder, it feels timely to look at winter reads – books that evoke the dark, snowy nights and crisp winter days. Here are a few of my favourites from the shelves.

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Set out of season in a quiet seaside town close, Winter in Sokcho is a haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery. 

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones)

Drive Your Plow… , the 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth! This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. By turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic, Plow subverts the traditional expectations of the noir genre to create something genuinely thought-provoking and engaging. The eerie atmosphere and sense of isolation of the novel’s setting – a remote Polish village in winter – are beautifully evoked.

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

A sequel to Lehmann’s earlier novel, Invitation to the Waltz, in which seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis is captivated at her first society ball by the dashing Rollo Spencer. Ten years later, a chance encounter brings Olivia back into contact with Rollo, sparking a rush of conflicting emotions – more specifically, the desire to open up vs the tendency towards self-protection. This remarkable book expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose, with the rain-soaked streets of London in winter providing a fitting backdrop for the novel’s tone. The modernity of Lehmann’s approach, with its passages of stream-of-consciousness and fluid style, makes it feel fresh and alive, well ahead of its time for the mid-1930s. 

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the very start of the book, there is something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. An interesting choice for book groups and solo readers alike – the novella’s ambiguous nature of the ending makes this a particularly unnerving read.  

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, perfectly captures the confusing mix of emotions that characterise a young girl’s coming of age. The book’s central character, Katherine Lind, exudes a deep sense of loneliness and isolation; and while Larkin never explicitly states Katherine’s nationality, there are several hints to suggest she is German, possibly a refugee of Jewish descent. This quiet, contemplative novel explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayals of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem.

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

A beautiful, atmospheric novella, set in the Black Forest during the dark, eerie period between Christmas and Twelfth Night. As the book opens, Manfred is trekking through the snow, returning to the village of his youth after an absence of forty years. A longstanding feud exists between Manfred and his younger brother, Sebastian, who effectively inherited the family farm back then, despite his lack of aptitude or training for the role. Underpinning the narrative are themes of loss, regret, and the possibility of reconciliation. While the overall tone is nostalgic and melancholy, there are glimmers of hope amidst the heartache as Manfred hopes to reconnect with his brother.

This is a wonderfully evocative read for a dark winter’s night, one that will likely resonate with anyone who has loved and lost at some point in their life.

The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy

The setting for Brophy’s glittering novella is a grand house in London where various guests have gathered for an 18th-century costume ball on New Year’s Eve. Central to the narrative are Anna K, a fortysomething divorcee attending the ball as Mozart’s Donna Anna, and another guest (identity unknown) who is dressed as a masked Don Giovanni. It’s a playful, seductive book, shot through with a captivating sense of wit. In essence, Brophy is riffing with the themes of Mozart’s celebrated opera Don Giovanni, reimagining the relationship between the titular character, DG, and the young woman he tries to seduce, Donna Anna. Despite my lack of familiarity with Mozart’s opera, I found this an utterly captivating read, accentuated by some beautiful descriptive prose. This is a highly imaginative novel of seduction, ageing, mortality and Mozart – the perfect read for a literary New Year’s Eve!

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading any of them in the future. Perhaps you have a favourite winter book or two? Please feel free to mention them in the comments below.

46 thoughts on “Winter reads – a few favourites from the shelves

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! I’m sure you’ll enjoy that too. Twelve Nights came my way as a freebie from the publisher (just before Christmas 2020), and it turned to be a lovely seasonal read.

      Reply
  1. Rohan Maitzen

    The only one I’ve already read is ‘Drive Your Plow…’ and I so agree about how great it is. (Still can’t manage Flights, though – but I’m hanging on to my copy because Tokarczuk is so good I’m sure the fault lies with me.) I’ve made a note of A Girl in Winter, which sounds lovely.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like the Larkin very much, Rohan. In fact, Catherine Taylor was just saying on Twitter that it’s one of her fave novels from the 20th century!
      As for Olga T, I’m also a little daunted by the prospect of Flights but still determined to give it a go at some point. Her prose is just so good.

      Reply
  2. Grier

    You’ve mentioned two of my favorite reads this year, The Weather in the Streets and A Girl in Winter which I read this month. Both books stayed in my mind for days. I hope to read Drive Your Plow sometime and am intrigued by Winter in Sotcho. I’ve just put in a request for it at the library.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I have such fond memories of A Girl in Winter, I’m almost tempted to read it again this year… Great to hear that you like the sound of Winter in Sokcho – I’ll be interested to see what you think. It’s a short yet memorable book, which helps at this time of year when we’re often busy with other things.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, this is why I shy away from setting myself reading challenges. I know I would find them too prescriptive! Seriously though, A Girl in Winter is such a beautiful novel. I’m sure it would stand up to a second reading. :)

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great choices Jacqui – and I heartily concur about the two I’ve read from the list, Drive your Plow and the Larkin. I loved them both and totally agree with your comment on Twitter – Larkin had a real knack for fiction (he was such a brilliant writer) and it’s a great shame he didn’t write more novels. Poetry’s gain and fiction’s loss, I guess…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. That’s a good way of looking at it. If Larkin had focused more on fiction, then we wouldn’t have some of those wonderful poems to enjoy. As I think you know, I’m not a big reader of poetry, but for Larkin I’m more than willing to make an exception!

      (PS Have you read the Lehmann? If not. I think you might like it!)

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    You know how much I love Tokarczuk’s books and Brigid Brophy is someone I haven’t read, but want to, and this book sounds really appealing. When I see Anna K, the other one I think of is Anna Karenina. A lovely list to explore!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, of course! That name may well be a conscious nod to Tolstoy’s heroine. Brophy is too smart a writer for it to be a mere coincidence. The Snow Ball is wonderfully evocative, although I’m sure I missed some of the subtleties due to my lack of familiarity with Mozart’s opera. (PS The King of a Rainy Country is also worth considering if you’re thinking of trying Brigid Brophy. It has such a wonderful lightness of touch, a very enjoyable novel to read.)

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    A fabulous selection, I loved The Girl in Winter, Love and Drive Your Plow… Rosamond Lehmann is a favourite and I have been meaning to reread Weather in the Streets for a few years. Winter in Sokcho appeals to me very much.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can’t recommend Winter is Sokcho highly enough. Funnily enough, it’s been about 20 months since I read it, and yet I can still remember certain scenes quite vividly, which is quite unusual for me. (I can usually recall the overall tone and mood of a novel but very little about specific details or particular scenes.) Love is another book that has really stayed with me…that ending still haunts by dreams, especially when it’s bitterly cold.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You might not like A Girl in Winter, then. Sokcho, on the other hand, might well be your cup of tea. Plus it’s short, so you could easily read it in one extended sitting. It’s the sort of book that would benefit from that kind of approach as the mood Dusapin creates is melancholy yet immersive.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I’ll be interested to see what you choose to read. It would make a great theme for one of your duo posts, spotlighting a couple of immersive wintry reads.

      Reply
  6. roughghosts

    Girl in Winter is splendid! I hope to get a copy of Twelve Nights this winter—it was not released in North America until spring which seemed so late. I’ve not read Love but I have her new book The Pastor set aside for the new year. My favourite winter book is My Antonia by Wila Cather for the powerful portrayal of the prairie winter that she and her family faced after their arrival. Unforgettable!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just! I have such fond memories of reading it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m tempted to reread it. That’s odd about the timing of the American/Canadian release of Twelve Nights…as you say, spring feels like a missed opportunity. I hope you’re able to pick it up this winter as it’s ideal for the break between Christmas and New Year when time seems to expand and lose its mooring to reality. And I love that you’ve mentioned My Antonia! That’s a really terrific recommendation for winter. I read it a few years ago and was struck by Cather’s portrayal of the prairie environment, the combination of beauty and brutality is perfectly evoked. The film critic Xan Brooks also cites it as a favourite winter read…
      https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/08/winter-reads-my-antonia-willa-cather

      Reply
  7. jenniferbeworr

    A thoughtful selection for a good few winter evenings. I read Twelve Nights on your recommendation, and had that sense that there was a vocabulary for snow that I was receiving of course in translation. The ending is haunting in its simplicity. Simply the men each saying the name of the other. Knowing all that we now know of both. Thank you for ‘sending’ the Urs Faes my way!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Jennifer! Yes, I loved the way Twelve Nights ended too as it left things open to the reader’s imagination. I have a hopeful, optimistic view of how the brothers’ relationship will work out going forward but appreciate other readers might have been looking for something more definite. I’m glad you liked the simplicity of it!

      Reply
  8. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Such an exciting list — I want to read them all! I’ve had Winter In Sokcho on my list since you first reviewed it, along with Lehmann’s Weather (she’s a writer that I’ve somehow never gotten to, despite being interested in her work). I was quite excited to learn that Philip Larkin had written a novel or two in addition to his poetry (somehow I’m always the last to hear about these things), so score another one for the overflowing TBR. Urs Faes is a new writer for me; his Twelve Nights sounds great and also goes on the list.
    I don’t generally do seasonal reading in any organized kind of way (living in a semi-tropical climate tends to discourage seasonal thinking), although I’ve noticed I tend to go for what I consider “formal” writing in the late fall and winter months. Think Edith Wharton or Henry James, both of whom I’ve been sampling in the last few weeks.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wharton and James are terrific suggestions! I’ve revisited Ethan Frome a couple of times in the past few years (always in winter) and it never fails to deliver. Funnily enough, I’ve also been dabbling with Henry James recently as I found an abridged audio version of Portrait of a Lady on Radio 4. It’s 5 hours long, which fitted well with my walks around the local common on the days when I was on my own.

      In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the Lehmann and Dusapin, whenever you get a chance to read them….and Twelve Nights is a very quick read, so not too taxing on the TBR pile should you decide to pick it up!

      Reply

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