An Epic Winter Reading List for Almost Every Mood
Thirty books that have entertained me, moved me to tears, made me swoon, and piqued my curiosity.
When I was first trying to decide the theme of this newsletter, I toyed with the idea of positioning myself as a Book Concierge, where readers could write in with their requests, and I would summon recommendations out of the air like a bookish little fairy. After all, I do that to my husband, slapping a novel onto his nightstand, even if he hasn’t requested it, and even if he’s still working through the last book I asked him to read. (Babe, can we please talk about Hamnet now?) But I ultimately determined there are wonderful librarians and bookfluencers doing that work already. Even so, I’ve never quite shelved my passion for book recommendations, especially when I know and love the person asking.
There’s something so intimate—sacred, even—about a book recommendation. It not only says something about who you are as a reader, but it says a lot about your relationship with the person. And the book rec requests have gotten hilariously specific. “What’s a book that will make me hate the world a little less, but doesn’t feel like it was written by Pollyanna?” or “What’s a book that’s kind of smutty, but has a decent plot?” Last night, after finishing a ridiculously fun fantasy romance, I found myself thinking, “I could really go for a funny memoir that reminds me of a Nancy Meyers movie.” (Any leads?)
What I’ve noticed lately is that the people in my life—myself included—choose their books based on mood. For the most part, we’re not all reading in one genre or religiously following a particular author. We like the diversity of books, and we like when they match up to our cravings. Because, for many readers, we crave books the way some crave dessert, or a perfectly seared steak; our literary desires shift every day. And when those desires are met—there’s nothing more satisfying.
Below, a few moods that might resonate with you at the moment, and thirty books to accompany them. I’ve read all of these and personally recommend them. I also tried to keep the picks fairly contemporary, though there are a few older ones in the mix. Lastly: I’m not well-read in a few genres, like sci-fi, horror, or mystery, so please supplement my knowledge in the comments, if you want!
This (long) list might get cut off in your email, so feel free to read online.
What are you reading? Any moods or requests I can incorporate in a future reading list for you?
Note: there are no affiliate links in this newsletter.
When You Want to be Transported
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
In 1550s Italy, Lucrezia de Medici takes her dead sister’s place and marries her fiance, the powerful and enigmatic duke of Ferrara. Lucrezia, a talented artist and observant young woman, must navigate her new court and the baffling people who occupy it—not least of which is her new husband, whose charm often gives way to a sinister side. Based on a tragic, true story of the duchess's untimely death, this book is incredibly written, with O’Farrell’s propulsive, rich prose and a deep sense of interiority.
The Fortunes of Jaded Women by Carolyn Huynh
It all starts with a psychic, as many life-changing stories do. In Hawaii, a cursed Mai Nguyen seeks out the help of the famous Auntie Hua, who tells her that within one year, there will be a death, marriage, and birth in the family. This prophecy is at play in Mai’s machinations with her three daughters and her own sisters, who flounder in their love lives in Little Saigon, Vietnam, and beyond. This novel could just as squarely go in the “making you laugh” category, with its hilarious portrayals of Vietnamese American aunties with huge, meddlesome hearts—and tempers to match.
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
In a small seaside town in Haiti, Claire Limyè Lanmè (Claire of the Sea Light) disappears, just as she’s about to be adopted by an affluent widow. The town searches frantically for her, while Claire’s father reexamines his heartbroken past. The story also moves into the future, decades after Claire’s disappearance, to trace the impact of that event on this tight-knit community. This story is beautifully told, with a keen sense of place and historical context.
Matrix by Lauren Groff
In the late 12th century, an unwilling Marie de France is sent from the court of her beloved Eleanor of Aquitaine to help at a run-down abbey in the middle of nowhere. Though Marie is at first inconsolable, and deeply at odds with her surroundings and the nuns around her, she finds a sense of strident purpose, transforming the abbey into a force to be reckoned with. Spanning almost an entire lifetime, Groff’s novel is lyrical yet visceral, with language that pays homage to the sublime and ordinary lives of women.
Banyan Moon by me
This is a cheat, since my book isn’t technically out until June 13, but I can’t help including it here. In my story, Ann learns of her beloved grandmother’s death at nearly the exact time when she learns of her pregnancy—and her partner’s painful infidelity. She returns home to the crumbling manor in Florida where she was raised to claim her inheritance. There, she must find a way to live with her estranged mother and sort through her grandmother’s tangled past, as a young woman living in wartime Vietnam, making discoveries that will change the course of their lives forever.
When You Want to Think
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez
Olga and Pietro have made names for themselves in their gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. Olga is a coveted wedding planner, while Pietro is a rising star in local politics. They’ve built flourishing lives as respected, young Latine powerhouses, but one day, they begin getting cryptic letters from their mother, a radical dissident living in Puerto Rico, that change everything.
Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li
This stylish, modern heist novel is a feat of storytelling. Will Chen, an art student at Harvard, is increasingly troubled by the Chinese art on display at American museums—many of which were acquired via theft and colonization over the centuries. So when a wealthy Chinese benefactor offers him fifty million dollars to steal five priceless Chinese sculptures back from famous museums around the world, he agrees. What follows is a fast-paced novel with a memorable cast of characters, including a beautiful getaway car driver and an intense computer hacker, exploring the deeper questions of who should own cultural artifacts. I found some of the logical leaps a little unbelievable, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying this book.
Neruda on the Park by Cleyvis Natera
In the closely knit Dominican community of Nothar Park, life has a certain rhythm. That is, until recent demolition efforts begin on a neighboring tenement, foretelling the start of gentrification, and instilling anxiety in the Nothar Park residents. One of the older women in the community, Eusebia, hatches a plan to stop the building of the new luxury condos. However, she’s pitted against her own daughter, Luz, a lawyer who falls for one of the condo developers. This one moved my heart so much, and brought to life the vibrant voices of the community.
When You Want to Stay Cozy by a Fire
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
This epic trilogy is set in the frosty wilderness and takes its cues from Russian folklore. Vasya has grown up hearing stories of Frost, the snow demon who lives deep in the forest, but she never dared dream she would meet him in real life. However, when a stalking evil force begins to encroach on her village, Vasya must put her fears aside and summon her own powers to save the people she loves. This is a sprawling, immersive tale that will make you huddle even deeper in your furs.
Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne
If you love fairytale retellings, you’ll pick up this new spin on Rapunzel set in 12th century Germany. Haelewise, known and reviled in her village for her mysterious seizures, has grown up without much love, except for the echoes of the magical folk tales her recently deceased mother told her. Ostracized and driven from her home, Haelewise finds a stone tower called Gothel, where a sorceress agrees to train her. But the outside world creeps closer, threatening to destroy all that Haelewise has tried to build for herself
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
In 1920s Alaska, married couple Jack and Mabel are trying to make their way in a brutal land. Desperately hoping for a child, they instead find isolation in the wilderness, unable to ease their staggering loneliness. One morning, they build a child out of snow. The snow child disappears the next morning but in her place, a girl named Faina appears on their doorstep with a red fox following close behind. This is an enchanting, tender tale about found love and the terrible price we’ll pay to keep it.
When You Want Something Strange and Uncanny
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel
An odd, lyrical read that layers different tales on top of one another to form a larger meditation on art, grief, and possibility. In one storyline, Edwin St. Andrew is exiled to the Canadian wilderness by his parents. There, in the woods, he hears the strains of a violin playing in an airship terminal, an experience that discombobulates him entirely. Centuries later, on the eve of a pandemic, Olive Llewellyn travels from her moon colony to Earth for a book tour. Inside her famous novel, she describes a violin playing in an airship terminal. Finally, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is a detective sent to investigate an anomaly in the Canadian wilderness. What he discovers is something far more troubling than he imagined.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This riveting new take on H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau follows Moreau’s daughter, Carlota, who grows up on a remote, luxurious island with a group of animal-human hybrids created by her mad genius of a father. She longs to see the outside world, but Dr. Moreau insists on keeping her sheltered from the nearby uprisings in the Yucatán peninsula. However, the outside world comes to them in the form of handsome Eduardo Lizalde, the son of Moreau’s patron, who immediately falls for Carlota. The results of their affair are disastrous, affecting not just the Moreau family, but every single creature on the island.
The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas
In the aftermath of a government coup in Mexico, after the death of her dissident father, Beatriz and her mother are left without a home or income. To solve their financial troubles, she decides to marry an attentive wealthy Don named Rodolfo Solórzano, who swiftly installs her in his childhood home of Hacienda San Isidro. At first, Beatriz is captivated by the dark, sprawling estate. But it doesn’t take long for her to understand that it’s no ordinary home. She begins hearing mysterious voices at night and has vivid dreams that feel more like visions. In fact, it seems like the Hacienda is a sentient being, determined to drive her out of her mind. The only person who can help her is an exiled priest with many secrets of his own.
When You Want to Swoon into Your Hot Cocoa
Go Hex Yourself by Jessica Clare
What’s a romance novel without a good pun in the title? Reggie Johnson answers a newspaper ad to become a live-in assistant, but once she arrives at her new “office,” she finds instead a strange home occupied by a scatterbrained witch and her grumpy warlock nephew, Ben. Ben seems to despise Reggie on sight, and the feeling is mutual, despite Ben’s troublingly handsome looks. In this charming comedy of errors, Reggie and Ben are thrown together after disaster befalls the household, forced to learn how to work together while fighting their growing attraction.
Every Summer After by Carley Fortune
I flew through this debut novel in less than 24 hours, and it was a completely heady, heart-aching ride. After receiving terrible news, Percy Fraser must return to Barry's Bay, the lake community where she spent her summers as a teen—and the place where she first fell in love with her childhood sweetheart, Sam. As soon as she sees him in Barry’s Bay, she knows it’s not over between them. Maybe it was never over. This story travels back and forth in time, with a sweeping rhythm that makes you want to keep reading.
Hook, Line, and Sinker by Tessa Bailey
Our queen of smutty romcom, Tessa Bailey, delivers yet again in this seaside romance about sexy Fox (a king crab fisherman, naturally, and a player-about-town) who meets his best friend’s sister-in-law, Hannah—and is immediately warned off from pursuing her. Fox tries to have a totally platonic friendship with Hannah, but their sizzling chemistry keeps getting in the way. This is a charming escapist fantasy with a fair amount of spice, along with lots of fun song references for the musically inclined.
Lunar Love by Lauren Kung Jessen
This one is a pre-order (January 10, 2023 is the release date), but it’s well worth the wait! Olivia Huang Christenson is nervous and excited to take over her family’s mom-and-pop matchmaking service based on the Chinese zodiac. But then, a buzzy new app is released based on—you guessed it—the Chinese zodiac. Olivia goes head-to-head with the CEO of the app, Bennett, who also happens to be kinda, sorta devastatingly handsome. They make a public bet that whoever can successfully match the other person up will win the glory—and some much-needed marketing for their businesses.
Stay tuned for a conversation with Lauren in a few weeks!
When You Just Want to Laugh Out Loud
Just Like Magic by Sarah Hogle
When I first tried to describe this book to a friend, they laughed. “The heroine falls in love with, like, an actual holiday spirit?” Yes, yes she does. Superficial Bettie Hughes accidentally conjures Hall, a remarkably attractive specimen of a spirit, and proceeds to exhaust him with her maniacal wishes—mostly, revenge ploys against those who have wronged her. Bettie brings Hall to her dysfunctional family’s Christmas visit as her pretend fiance, which is always a formula for hilarity and misunderstandings. This book is described as a “gleefully unhinged” romcom and it totally lives up to that description. I don’t often laugh while reading, but let me just say that there’s a Cracker Barrel scene that made me guffaw so obnoxiously that I was banished from the room by my daughter.
Counterfeit by Kirsten Chen
Ava Wong is the poster child for the model Chinese American immigrant: cute husband, cute kid, great home. But one day, Ava’s old college roommate, Winnie Fang, pushes her way into Ava’s life again, proposing a scheme to sell counterfeit luxury handbags for profit. Tight-laced Ava resists at first, but soon finds herself drawn into a world of intrigue and unthinkable wealth. But will she be able to pull herself out of Winnie’s clutches? I know nothing about luxury handbags, so this was a fascinating look at both the people who manufacture these products overseas, and those who would do anything to get their hands on one.
Bring Your Baggage and Don't Pack Light: Essays by Helen Ellis
For a short, irreverent collection that you can read while avoiding those lovable yet overly attentive family members, try Ellis’s most recent book. In it, she covers everything from taking a girls’ trip to a water park in your fifties to appreciating the wacky characters at a dinner party. (The essay titles alone are worth a read: “Grown-Ass Ladies Gone Mild” and “Are You There Menopause? It’s Me, Helen”) Her voice is hilarious and bold, yet warm and full of love for her friends and community. This is a quick, light read that helped me find the humor in aging and being a misfit in an uptight world.
When You Want to Feel Deeply
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
If I really like a book, I will plunk it on Dan’s nightstand right after reading, then pester him for days until he actually picks it up. I was relentless with Zevin’s latest, a book of such moving beauty and intimacy that I could not stop raving about it for days to anyone who glanced my way. In this novel, childhood friends Sam and Zadie rediscover their love of gaming and begin designing games together. Spanning roughly thirty years, this book captures the changes in their friendship as they become business partners, often passionately at odds with one another in all things personal and professional. The dialogue is rich and the interiority is nuanced, bringing you close to each character. You don’t have to know a thing about video games to love this book, but it’ll help you appreciate this popular art form.
The Many Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford
Dorothy Moy is a poet who “breaks her heart for a living,” so she is no stranger to trauma. But when her young daughter begins exhibiting troubling behavior that mirrors her own, she realizes that she must excavate the past to find the root of her inherited trauma to save her child. Through an experimental treatment, she is able to witness the lives of her ancestors. Among others are Faye, a nurse serving in China; Zoe, a yearning child at a lawless school; and Afong Moy, a performer and the first Chinese woman to live in America. This is the best of book club fiction: strong characters, beautiful plot, and an immersive sense of place. I wanted to linger in the world of this book, sticking close to each character.
The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill
I’m quite late to this one, and it took me completely by surprise. In this quiet yet engrossing first-person novel, a wife contemplates her dissolving marriage, from the couple’s early days of secret jokes and frenzied lust, to their current lives, which are positioned at a crossroads between loss and fear, due to her husband’s infidelity. This is such a specific glimpse of a very universal heartbreak, and Offill’s prose just sings. I highlighted tons of lines and felt deeply seen by this novel. In the way that Sally Rooney is often presented as a voice of a generation, I feel that this book might be representative of women like me, who struggle with their identity and place in the world in their thirties and forties.
When You’re Suffering and Want to Know You’re Not Alone
Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
This is a pandemic novel, so it carries with it a lot of emotional tension and stakes, especially for those deeply affected by Covid. In this continuation of the Lucy books, Lucy is whisked from her home in New York City by her ex-husband William, who can foretell the devastating impact of the pandemic before many others. The former spouses remake their lives in small-town Maine, grappling with their anxieties about their children and the world at large, while observing the small miracles around their new home. This is one of those novels that makes you reconsider the power of community, especially in fraught circumstances. It also casts a light on the losses many suffered with startlingly tender empathy.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
In a not-so-distant future, young Bird Gardner lives a small, sheltered life with his father, still reeling from the sudden disappearance of his beloved Chinese American mother, a poet and inadvertent symbol of the underground resistance against emerging nationalist sentiment. However, when he finds a small clue from his mother in his home, he embarks on a winding, dangerous journey to find her again. This quest takes him all over the city and straight into a secretive network of political dissidents determined to oppose the country’s troubling policies. Though this novel has been called didactic by some, and uneven in pacing by others, I found myself gravitating to it, especially as an Asian American woman and a long-time fan of Ng’s work.
This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub
This moving novel is a personal look at grief, layered with specificity and gorgeous language. Alice wakes the morning after her 40th birthday to find herself in her childhood apartment, reliving her sixteenth birthday. Her sci-fi writer father—who, in her current timeline, is dying from a mysterious illness—is healthy again and full of good cheer. Alice is given an unexpected second chance, both to pivot her life, and to eke out more time with her beloved father. This story asks so many questions we all hold close: What regrets about the past would I address? Who would I spend more time with, if I could do it over again?
When You Want Reassurance that the World Isn’t Such an Awful Place
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Two Zevin novels in one list! It couldn’t be helped. A.J. Fikry owns a small bookstore—the only bookstore on the hard-to-access island where he lives—and is, frankly, fed up with life. His wife has died, he cannot connect with anyone in his community, and business isn’t that great. This all changes one day when a mysterious package is left in his bookstore, one he accepts with unexpected enthusiasm. This is a lovely, thoughtful book about the relationships we choose—and the ones that choose us. It’s optimistic without being flat, and has tons of whimsical, funny moments that made me laugh out loud.
Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune
Klune is a master at combining the enchanting elements of folklore with the all-too-relatable, un-enchanting foibles of humanity, and this novel is no exception. Wallace wakes at his own funeral and comes face-to-face with a quirky Grim Reaper who promises to help him cross over. The Reaper delivers Wallace to a whimsical tea shop in the middle of nowhere, where the owner, Hugo, sets out to help Wallace say goodbye to life in just seven days. This story is very charming and sweet, without being overwrought. It goes without saying that I would give anything to visit that crooked little tea shop in the woods!
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna
This is technically a romance novel, but I’ll put it in this category, because it’s also incredibly warm-hearted and great for a soothing read. (I realized that I have a lot of witchy, magical content in this list, but that also can’t be helped.) Mika Moon is one of the few Witches of Color in Britain, and has always felt isolated from the larger magical community. But one day, after she posts a TikTok of her “pretending” to be a witch, she gets a mysterious invitation to come to the Nowhere House, where she’s tasked with the instruction of three sweet, strong-willed little witches whose magic constantly goes berserk. Without realizing it, Mika becomes an essential part of her newfound family. The only one not enchanted by Mika? Jamie, the librarian of the Nowhere House, who remains fiercely protective of the children and suspicious of Mika herself. But when the Nowhere House is threatened by outside sources, the duo must put their mutual annoyance aside and learn to act as a team to protect the people they love most.