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Candlemas, St, Brigid’s Day, Imbolc, Groundhog Day: Whether you like your celebrations pagan, Christian or popularized-by-a-Pennsylvania-newspaperman (looking at you, Punxsutawney Phil), this week was marked by a spiritual shift toward spring’s arrival. (If you lit a candle on Monday evening to welcome the light’s return, you know exactly what we’re talking about.)
Meteorologically, however, the northern hemisphere still has a cold, snowy slog to survive before we’re done with this bitter season. (Although Wiarton Willie assures us it’s a mere six weeks till we’re delivered by an early spring. From your shadow to the weather gods’ ears, Will!) We have no choice but to endure it, but what if we embraced it?
That’s the intention of this reading list, a curated selection of books – some old, but mostly new – that celebrate the season’s frosty charms. Some exalt it outright, others make the most of the snow and cold in their narrative and setting, while others are merely temperamentally suited to winter, and the increased concentration and introspection that can come when the night comes early and, well, there’s nothing else to do. (A phenomenon only amplified in this lockdown winter.)
Set aside your prejudices, wrap up nice and warm, and brace yourself: Not for an Arctic blast, but an unexpected affection for winter.
Wintering, Katherine May (Riverhead Books)
If you start anywhere, start with this winter convert’s manifesto. Part memoir, part handbook, it’s an utterly beautiful introduction to reframing your approach to this season. For May, a British writer and former academic, there are two sorts of winters: The physical kind that lasts from November to March, and the equally unpredictable kind that can come in the form of an illness, a loss, a setback. Basically, any of those strange parts of all of our lives that can feel cold, bleak and helpless. With stories of the winters she’s weathered (one with a mystery sickness, another finding herself unanchored when she quits her job), this is a how-to guide for leaning into the fallow times – and reaping a harvest come spring.
The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley (Simon & Schuster)
When Carrie, a Nova Scotian writer, is driving up Scotland’s coast, she’s inexplicably drawn to the ruins of a castle, perched above the wild North Sea. At first, she thinks it’s just because it’s the perfect place to set her next historical novel, and she’s astonished at how quickly the words come when she sits down to write in her cozy cottage on the cliff. As the novel emerges, almost like it’s being dictated to her, Carrie begins to wonder if there isn’t something deeper (and stranger) in her uncanny connection to this story she’s writing about Sophia and the intrigue of early-18th-century Scottish politics she finds herself entangled in. It’s almost like ... she lived it herself in another life?! An epic romance for an epic season, by one of Canada’s best historical-fiction writers.
Winter Street, Elin Hilderbrand (Little, Brown and Company)
You may, however, prefer your winter sagas on a smaller, cozier scale – in which case Elin Hilderbrand’s “Winter Street” quartet could be just the thing to snuggle up to. (Tissues recommended, since they do tug on the heartstrings.) The so-called “Queen of the Beach Read,” Hilderbrand brings her signature warmth to this series of novels about the Quinn family. Over four winter-themed titles (Winter Stroll, Winter Storms, Winter Solstice et al.), she charts their familial journey – relationships begin and end, careers are found and abandoned, chaos unleashed and then resolved – with such sincerity (and yes, a bit of sentimentality) that you can’t help but feel fond of this dysfunctional crew. Ideal for when the forecast calls for a bit of sappiness.
Winter, Ali Smith (Penguin Canada)
The second book in Ali Smith’s “Seasonal” quartet (Autumn, the first, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize,) this is a strange, beguiling bit of experimental literature. One of its main characters, for instance, is the disembodied head that follows Sophia, a retired powerbroker, around, and which only she can see. Or maybe it’s just a floater in her eye? It’s a plot that ought to feel silly, but in Smith’s masterful hands, it works – as does her re-imagining of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, where Sophia meets her past selves over the course of a disturbed night. Smith’s evocations of the natural world – specifically Cornwall, a particularly imagination-stirring part of England – might just have you appreciating your own frosted view in a new light as well.
The Witch’s Heart, Genevieve Gornichec (Penguin)
We’d be remiss if we held a celebration of winter literature without mentioning Norse mythology, progenitor of so many of our favourite snow-set stories. This debut novel, however, offers up a Nordic tale with a twist: Less a faithful retelling of an ancient story, it’s a subversive, feminist epic, centred around a powerful witch named Angrboda, who defies Odin to be with Loki, one of the less trustworthy figures in the pantheon. Her story begins with the pursuit of romantic love but soon evolves into something much more powerful – a fierce will to shape her own destiny, and claim her own power, will of the gods be damned. With the zippy plotting of a Marvel movie and the imaginative chops of the best of science fiction, this is a transportive way to while away a weekend in February.
The Sanatorium, Sarah Pearse (Penguin)
There’s something sublime about being tucked up at home in winter and tucking into a particularly chilling, creepy book. (It’s why Wuthering Heights and Dracula both make excellent winter reads.) This book, set at a remote luxury hotel hidden deep in an alpine forest, takes full advantage of that proclivity and delivers Gothic thrills in spades. The titular sanatorium, once abandoned and dogged by rumours of strange doings, has been re-invented as a five-star retreat, which is why Elin, a detective, finds herself there to celebrate her estranged brother’s engagement. In the brooding shadow of the mountain, however, it doesn’t take long for their attempt to be a happy family to unravel – and some very strange things to start happening, not least the disappearance of her future sister-in-law, just as a storm descends and cuts the hotel off from civilization. If twisty, creepy and satisfyingly dark are your cup of tea – get the kettle on for this one.
The Sunflower Cast A Spell To Save Us From The Void, Jackie Wang (Nightboat Books)
This is not an explicitly winter-y book, but it is a beautiful one to sit with on a February evening, taking advantage of the quiet for a bit of meditative reading. This debut poetry collection was inspired by Wang’s own dreams and her attempts to wring some meaning from their chaotic, surreal happenings – a phenomenon we can all relate to in the era of fevered, vivid pandemic nightmares. Her poems, fluid and spare, will resonate with anyone feeling helpless in the face of all the things we can’t control, while offering a comfort in their gentle, considered moments of optimism. A transcendent way to begin to welcome the light back, indeed.