The best comfort reads of winter

As seen on Ten Daily

Our gastronomic tastes vary depending on the season . During winter, we are drawn to slow cooked stews and hearty roasts, while in summer, we favour light and colourful salads and barbecues.

But does the change of season also affect our reading tastes? During cold and blustery winter days, do readers escape into warmer climes in the pages of a book? Or perhaps they snuggle up with a warm cup of tea and read tales set in the bleak, icy depths of Alaska, grateful for open fireplaces and central heating.

Alternatively, the perfect winter book might be found at the other end of the spectrum to light and breezy beach reads – something deep and weighty, the bookish equivalent of a hearty meal.

Whatever your seasonal reading preferences, here are some options that will see you through the winter.

Escape to warmer places

A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey

Follow Irene and Titch Bobs as they drive around Australia in the Redex car trial, and discover the secrets of the Australian outback with Willy Bachuber. Peter Carey’s latest release evokes a hot and dusty land far removed from the bitter cold of the southern Australian winter.

“As we approached Darwin I was slowed once more by cattle. Their escort of blowflies came to feast upon my sweaty face.”

The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe

Robert Drewe’s iconic collection of short stories centres on the long, hot days of summer by the coast. But, while the sun might shine brightly on picturesque beaches, there is an unmistakably sinister undertone to the stories, with the heat and idyllic settings contrasting with the despair, delusions and dangerousness of the characters.

“Squinting against the glare, David was relieved and gladdened to see his children and Lydia frolicking together in the sea. It wasn’t a familiar scene from his marriage, more like one from his early childhood, a link to it, a summer holiday at the seaside, a rare time when adults dropped their guard and pretensions and acted the goat. He was aware of the sting of the sun on his neck and this too made him happy.”

The Dry by Jane Harper

The brittle heat of rural Australia plays a central role in The Dry. In her award-winning novel about a crime in a small farming town, Jane Harper creates a sense of place through her descriptions of the heat and the drought that has brought the community to its knees. This is one book that makes the cold of winter seem preferable to the kind of heat that weighs heavily, fraying nerves and breeding hostility.

“He stood on shaky legs, his vision blurred, as all around the cockatoos whirled and screamed into the scorching red sky. Alone, in that monstrous wound, Falk put his face in his hands and, just once, screamed himself.”

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

The long days of childhood summers are captured beautifully by Ann Patchett in her bestselling novel about a family that is broken apart and rebuilt. With their new step brothers and sisters, the children are given freedom to amuse themselves during summer holidays. While there is an element of nostalgia, the long, hot days provide a backdrop before which tragedy occurs.

In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, the children head off for a long summer day at the lake as their parents sleep.

“It was hotter than they expected it to be, though no hotter than it had been the day before or the day before that. The sky was already turning white, clamping a pervasive dullness onto the landscape.”

Wimmera by Mark Brandi

The heat in Mark Brandi’s debut, Wimmera, is ominous, hinting at danger lucking in the suburban streets. And, as we find out later in the book, the danger is as close by as the reader feared. From the scorching bitumen to the backyard pool, Wimmera transports Australian readers into a cruelly corrupted version of the long, hot afternoons they remember.

“The heat in summer was unrelenting. The whole block seemed to bake and split as the earth opened up, releasing tribes of angry bull ants and brown snakes.”

Embrace the cold

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

It is hard not to shiver when reading Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, whether it is winter or not. The landscapes are sparse, grim and brutally cold, and there is little relief from the freezing conditions for the characters. Set in northern Iceland in 1829, Burial Rites is the story of a woman who is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men. She is sent to live with a rural family, where she endures not just the dread of her pending execution, but also the suspicion contempt of those she lives alongside and the physical hardships of the harsh climate. It is enough to make a reader feel wildly grateful for any proximity to central heating or an electric blanket.

“Up in the highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner.”

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The sense of cold discomfort amplifies the horror of Auschwitz in Heather Morris’ book. Heavy coats do little to keep out the icy winds of the Polish winter, taking a heavy toll on starving bodies. What is worse, the Nazi guards are at their most ill-tempered during the colder weather, intensifying the sense of hopelessness of the prisoners during the colder months.

“It is bitterly cold and the compound is a mess of snow and mud.”

The coldness of the doctors, guards and officers at the camp often aligns with the freezing conditions. When the protagonist, Lale, meets a particularly cruel doctor, he tells himself, “He must always be wary of this man whose soul is colder than his scalpel.”

Ludmilla’s Broken English by DBC Pierre

Set in the south of Russia, the cold almost seems to be a character in this strange, funny novel in which the lives of a woman who wants to escape the war-torn region of Caucasus, and recently disconjoined twins, meet. The bitterly cold setting reflects the bleak lives of the poverty-stricken, defiant and potty-mouthed characters of rural Russia, where the characters come together.

“Ice-dust rose in sudden shapes off the snow, only to be smacked to pieces by the wind. And perhaps on that freezing perch the same happened to souls trying to rise from the body.”

Tackle weighty reads

The Choke by Sofie Laguna

The Choke is a book that cannot be read lightly. It is the story of a girl who is living in bushland with her grandfather. Her mother has left and her brutal father appears only occasionally, unsettling the family and leaving devastation in his wake. The dyslexic Justine is left to navigate her way around a volatile family and community, isolated from any real support. Small moments of kindness and happiness momentarily hold back the despair of Justine’s situation, and ultimately, this is a novel that leaves an indelible mark on the reader. However, this award-winning book is as rewarding as it is heartbreaking.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

It is hard to imagine a weightier narrator than death itself. And as expected, the introduction to The Book Thief is grim; Liesel catches a train to her new home and her brother dies on the journey. However, the unusual narrator does not make for a book that is entirely dark, with love, friendship and literature all playing a part in the life of Liesel, a German girl living sent to live with foster parents during World War II. And death itself is matter-of-fact about its role in picking up those who have fallen. This book has a sad beauty, and provides a reminder of the value of literature, even in the worst of times.

Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary or Crime and Punishment

They’ve been sitting on the bookshelf for years, gathering dust, but perhaps the winter months are the time to finally read these classics. At a time when festivities are few and far between, and staying in with a hot chocolate and a book is more tempting than a night out, it might be the perfect time to choose a classic that you’ve always wanted to read. You might even find that it is not as heavy or laborious as you might have expected.

Lose yourself and forget the cold

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

This book manages to be funny and warm, despite the darkness that lies behind the protagonist, Eleanor’s, story. Suffering from a traumatic childhood, Eleanor attempts to navigate social norms in the workplace and the wider community, with hilarious results, while refusing to explore her feelings too deeply. As she gains confidence, Eleanor experiences unexpected joys. You will laugh and cry, before the surprising and hopeful ending.

The Last Mrs Parrish by Liv Constantine

Written by sisters via Skype and emails, The Last Mrs Parrish is a breezy read that also manages to touch on more complex issues of domestic violence, power and wealth. It tells the story of a woman who sets out to steal the husband of a perfect society wife, whatever it takes. However, that perfect life isn’t quite what she expected. Ultimately, you’ll be too carried away by the cleverly plotted story to dwell too much on the weightier issues.

 

 

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