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What I've Been Reading This Winter
I don’t know about you, but I lean into reading more than ever at this time of year. Particularly on days like today in Edinburgh, when the wind is howling down the chimney and the rain lashes the windows, I crave nothing more than curling up with a pot of tea and a good book to escape the real world for a wee while.
I had such a lovely response to my favourite reads of 2021 and cosy Christmas reading recommendations that I thought I’d make them a seasonal feature. What I read does tend to shift with the seasons: in Winter I’m longing for comfort and diverting reads, while in Summer I seem to read more non-fiction and reflective pieces (maybe it’s the headspace of the Summer holidays). My list here is by no means exhaustive, but I thought I’d share a few books that I’ve read mainly recently, that seem apt for the season we’re in.
A Gothic Novel: ‘The Bass Rock’, Evie Wyld
If you like gothic tales and rugged Scottish scenery - and I know I am drawn to such tales at this time of year - then you will love ‘The Bass Rock’. Evie Wyld skilfully knits together three stories from three different time periods set against the backdrop of East Lothian. Part gothic novel, part family drama, Wyld reflects on male violence that echoes through the ages, which makes it a tough read at times but the characters had me hooked from the first page - especially messy Viviane. This was a thoughtful gift and I devoured it in less than 24 hours when we were away over New Year.
An Allegorical Novel: ‘Mrs Death Misses Death’, Salena Godden
Salena Godden is a poet and activist and this is her first novel. ‘Mrs Death Misses Death’ skilfully blends verse and poetic prose in a style that is unlike anything I have read before. Mrs Death is personified here as a series of Black women that have shape-shifted through the generations. In the present day, she meets East London poet Wolf Willeford who shares her stories as fragments of poetry, transcripts and biographies. It’s definitely more allegorical than plot-driven, but once you get your head round the lack of traditional plot, it is a moving, surreal and surprisingly witty memento mori that seems particularly apt at this Winter time of year.
A Feminist Novel: ‘Scabby Queen’, Kirstin Innes
‘Scabby Queen’ centres on Clio Campbell, one time pop sensation and political activist, and simultaneously tells the story of Scotland over the last 30 years. Innes’ musings on how we treat women in the public eye were particularly thought-provoking. Clio dies by suicide and doesn’t get her own voice - instead, she is rendered by multiple narrators, people who knew her in varying degrees throughout her life. It’s a clever technique that reflects the way in which we fictionalise and even mythologise public figures, and in a wider sense makes us reflect on our own narratives we weave around our own messy lives, as well as how possible it is to really know others. Not particularly Wintery but I read and loved it recently so wanted to include it here!
A Gritty Scottish Novel: ‘The Young Team’, by Graeme Armstrong
Something about this time of year makes me reach for grittier, thought-provoking novels. Last year was ‘Shuggie Bain’, and this year Graeme Armstrong’s ‘The Young Team’. Based on Armstrong’s experiences as a teen growing up in the schemes of Lanarkshire, the novel is rendered entirely in Scottish dialect and is all the more powerful for it. Once you tune into narrator Azzy’s voice, you will be rooting for him. Armstrong depicts gang violence and poverty specific to a time and place with a haunting realism, blended with markers of a classic Bildungsroman and more universal reflections on class, gender, life and death. Armstrong cites the influence of Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ and I think thoroughly succeeds in his aim to provide “an up-to-date rendering of youth culture in Scotland”.
A Modern Classic: ‘The Book Thief’, by Markus Zusak
I’m ashamed to say that I had not read this classic novel until last month, but wow - I don’t think I have cried so much after finishing a book in recent years! If you don’t know this international best seller, it is famously narrated by Death and set during World War Two in Germany, recounting the tale of Liesel, her foster parents and best friend Rudy. Gradually, the horrors of the Nazi regime are revealed to the reader, and the family conceal a Jewish man Max Vandenburg who, along with her foster Father Hans, teaches Liesel the power of stories and the written word. I won’t say much more so as not to spoil the plot, but urge you to read it.
A Thought-Provoking Read: ‘Winter’, by Ali Smith
I couldn’t not include Winter in this list, could I? I first read this just before the pandemic on our trip to Paris, where we arrived in the midst of a storm and were confined to barracks and I devoured this book, which certainly matched the moody weather. It is the second in Smith’s seasonal quartet and begins with a family gathering in Cornwall for a Christmas reunion. Sophia - who is estranged from her sister Iris - experiences visions of a disembodied head following her around. Iris’ son Art is an nature blogger, who is paying Lux to pretend to be his girlfriend Charlotte for Christmas. Surreal, thought-provoking and filled with references to Shakespeare, it’s pretty hard to summarise so you’ll just have to read it…!
Escapist Young Adult Fiction: ‘Sisters of Shadow’, by Katherine Livesey
Described as Anne of Green Gables meets Diana Wynne Jones, this tale of dark magic is perfect for Winter. The novel centres on forest-dwelling Alice and nature-loving Lily, inseparable friends until the whispers of a cult prove to be more than local folklore and Alice goes missing - it is up to Lily to save her. The first in the series of Young Adult novels by Katherine Livesey (who you must follow on Instagram if you don’t already) I loved this for a bit of fantasy escapism.
What have you been reading this Winter?