Winter is here, and the nip in the air (or the blast of freezing air in North India) offers the perfect excuse to stay at home and read (if you’re not out at a protest). Treat yourself to a nook with a favourite blanket, spiced cookies and something warm to sip on. Doorstoppers, stories of rogues, books teeming with magic—take these with a side of hot cocoa and you are all set to embrace the sweater weather.
1. 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pyjamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
Foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, motherless nine-year-old Madeline lives in a cockroach-infested apartment with an absent father but all her dreams are about singing. Spanning over twenty hours from a Christmas eve morning, and featuring many memorable characters (the owner of a soon-to-be-closed jazz club, a divorced school teacher hanging out with a childhood crush), this book is funny and tinged with holiday serendipity.
2. Blankets by Craig Thompson
I read Blankets during a cold Mumbai winter admiring Thompson’s art—black-and-white panels knitted together with blankets and quilts over Wisconsin winters, sibling rivalry, first love and self-reflection. Blankets are fought for, played with and also shared because “In that little pathetic clump of blankets there was comfort.” You will find yourself sighing, longing to revisit your childhood self and smiling as you read this graphic novel.
3. Chocolat by Joanne Harris
There’s nothing that says winter like the urge to stuff yourself with chocolate, and Chocolat is definitely an enabler. Vivianne Rocher and her daughter move to a strait-laced French hamlet to open a chocolatier, much to the chagrin of the local priest who vehemently delivers sermons against her devilry. With bonbons, handmade chocolates, mugs of hot cocoa, and even a chocolate festival, Chocolat promises to be a sensual feast. Be sure to have your stash of chocolates near the bedside for those insatiable midnight cravings.
4. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
This glorious doorstopper, which comes highly recommended by Neil Gaiman, is a maze— a captivating narrative set in the 1800s with rival magicians, magical theory enthusiasts, the Napoleonic Wars, book hoarding, rain ships, sand horses, faery servants, and dead ladies, stippled with over 200 footnotes (and not a single boring one). You’ll find the novel irresistible and unputdownable if you have a thing for academicians poring over journals, possessive bookworms (aren’t we all?), spell-making trials and historical fiction. Pair it up with the TV adaptation and the audiobook, like I did, and thank me later.
5. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
On the day of the first snowfall, a childless couple playfully makes a child out of snow. The morning after, a feisty, blonde-haired girl with a red fox arrives, but the wife fears their ‘snow child’ will leave with the melting snow. Set in the 1920s, and based on the Russian fairytale Snegurochka, the novel sleds through the bleak Alaskan wilderness, snow flurries and magic. Read it for lyrical, dreamy sentences and an atmosphere that’ll warm you with wintery kisses.
6. A Gallery of Rascals by Ruskin Bond
Actually anything by Ruskin Bond—reminiscences, hill station stories, mysteries, horror—evokes cosy vibes. My recent favourite is this collection which includes both his old, more-famous stories and new ones, about “rogues, rapscallions and ne’er-do-wells.” Read for cyanide-laced chocolates, Grandfather’s private zoo, the seven husbands of Suzanna, duels between British officers, arrested school teachers, ghosts, thieves and jinns. The 30 stories are short enough for quick evening reads and, as we all know, Bond never disappoints.
7. Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden
Vasya grows up on a steady diet of stories by the fireside in 14th century Rus’ (old Russia) but soon she realises she is in one. A battle is brewing between chyerti (spirits) and humans. Abandoned cottages, Slavic mythical beings like rusulka (water spirits), domovoi (household guardians), upyr (vampires), paganism vs Christianity and references to real-life politics juxtapose in this frosty fairytale brimming with ancient magic. The first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, gave me mad, colourful, Wonderland-like dreams at night and the last one, The Winter of the Witch, set me on a googling spree about medieval Russian history. So good!
8. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated from Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude
I am usually intimidated by chunky books but the complex, detail-heavy, anguish-inducing passages, aristocracy and intoxicating characters made me fall head over heels for this Russian opus on high society life. Save for a few agrarian passages, I loved Anna Karenina to bits — the tragic love story, the consequences that are lighter on men than women for the same actions, and the stifling, suffocating community. I suggest dividing the book into sizeable chunks for weekly reads and keeping piping, hot drinks at hand. There’s nothing better than committing to this classic over the winter.
9. Snow by Orhan Pamuk, translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely
Pamuk’s Snow, set in a remote city in eastern Anatolia, shut off from the world because of three days of unrelenting snowfall, is your best bet for a literary heavyweight. A poet investigates the rising suicides of girls, revisits his past, and meets his ex-sweetheart. Snow is a novel of opposites—modernism vs tradition, secularism vs an Islamic government, clash of ideals and art—and a love story. I read it very slowly over many months, twice.
10. The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
Why not pick up the much acclaimed, and award-appealing (the JCB Prize for literature 2019 winner, DSC Prize for South Asian Literature shortlisted, among many others) debut novel for these dreary winter months? Set in Kashmir and Bangalore and featuring a daughter on a solo mission, The Far Field is a slow, sometimes meandering read, which often slips into personal grief coupled with political turmoil.
11. The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale
Papa Jack’s Emporium opens with the first frost of the year and closes after winter. It sells toys that come to life—paper trees that sprout instantly, patchwork dogs, and toy soldiers that fight. In this magical toy shop is the rivalry between his sons (both aspiring toymakers), the gloom of war and a runaway pregnant girl.
12. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
A luxury train that travels over Europe stops in the middle of nowhere because of a snowdrift. An American tycoon is stabbed to death onboard the train and Hercule Poirot is digging for clues. Agatha Christie proves her mastery in this whodunit (one of her best) with twelve suspects, each with a solid alibi, that’ll leave your head spinning at the denouement.