Great reads for wintery nights

For Fiona Smith, ‘tis the season to curl up with a book - and here are some suggestions for what to choose.
Great reads for wintery nights

The 1800s might seem like another country, but the themes explored by Jane Austen have not gone away. Picture: Hulton Archive

WE are all brilliant at preaching to our children to stay away from screens at this time of year, when they are back to school and spending more time indoors. However, do we ever pause our daily nags to examine our own habits? Do we think about how we spend our own spare time?

As winter approaches, now is the time to switch off your phone, resist Netflix, and reach for one of those slow-burning classics that you always planned to read but never got around to.

Don’t be afraid to time travel. The 19th century is a good place to start. The 1800s might seem like another country, but the themes explored by Jane Austen have not gone away. Materialism versus love, marriage as a route to security, not just happiness, and women’s position in society are all explored with biting irony and sly humour. With the novels all set in the English countryside and cities such as Bath, Austen provides an enthralling alternative reality in which to escape the stresses of the encroaching winter season.

If, despite honest effort, you can’t quite get into reading them yourself, try an audible version, which will serve up the atmosphere with less work on your part. A basic subscription to the Audible app is available through Amazon at a cost of €10 a month. The BorrowBox Library app is free to all members of Irish libraries. Go straight to the classics section for Austen.

If you fancy something lighter, but stylistically impressive, the comedy of PG Wodehouse may be for you. Jeeves and Wooster’s antics are a sparkling antidote to the harsh realities of our age.

Agatha Christie is another writer worth revisiting as a comfort read and to escape the grisly violence of contemporary crime scenes. The author has inspired an entire sub-genre of cosy crime by writers such as Richard Osman, whose Thursday Murder Club (Penguin) mysteries top the bestseller lists. With Agatha Christie, there is the glorious fact that she has written 66 novels and 14 short story collections. So, it will be a long time before you run out.

There is also a profusion of exciting new and not-so-new Irish writers, including Claire Keegan whose novel Small Things Like These (Grove Press, inset right) has been shortlisted for this year’s Booker prize. Her novel Foster was the inspiration for An Cailín Ciúin, the acclaimed Irish film nominated for an Oscar.

Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan
Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan

The travails of a young woman dealing with an unnamed mental health problem does not sound like the subject for humour, yet Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss treats this subject with wit and panache.

The Jane Austen of our age, Elizabeth Strout, homes in on the life of a Maine schoolteacher in Olive Kitteridge, Olive Again (Penguin).

Although in the Olive books, Strout focuses on the minutiae of daily life in the small town of Crosby in Maine, she does not shy away from big subjects such as abuse and poverty. In My name Is Lucy Barton, and Anything Is Possible (Penguin) there is an exploration of how past trauma affects the characters in their adult lives and relationships. However, the quality of the vivid, insightful writing means that her work is never depressing.

Her book about Lucy Barton’s ex-husband Oh William! is nominated for the 2022 Booker prize. This examines how a relationship is never really over - even when it has come to an end.

Lucy and William also feature in Strout’s most recent novel, Lucy By The Sea (Penguin), in which Lucy leaves New York to spend the pandemic in Maine with William.

A major hit of the pandemic was Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet about the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son. The Northern Irish writer’s follow-up is out this autumn.

The Marriage Portrait (Tinder Press) is set in Italy and is based on the life of Lucrezia de’Medici, who was married to the Duke of Ferrara when she was a teenager in the mid-16th century. The Duchess did actually exist, but her story has been fictionalised by O’Farrell.

Those who enjoyed Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend series about female friendship may be interested in the immensely talented Chinese American writer Yiyun Li’s new novel The Book of Goose (Fourth Estate). The book traces the friendship between two French girls, Agnes and Fabienne, who grew up together in an impoverished village and whose paths diverge only to meet again.

For those interested in landscape and walking, Raynor Wynne is a writer with a fascinating back-story.

Wynne’s prize-winning first book, Salt Path, describes a 630-mile walk with her husband after they became homeless due to a bad investment. Her account of their hiking and camping along Britain’s South West Coast Path was a huge success.

Her latest book (Landlines, Michael Joseph) is about a walk that she and her husband, who was diagnosed with a cognitive disease, take along one of Britain’s toughest and wildest routes, Scotland’s Cape Wrath Trail.

As well as getting you away from screens, this book may even get you up off the couch and on to your feet this autumn.

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