We thought we'd celebrate the solstice with our final list of 2020: here's 21(ish) titles that make us think of midwinter, and think at midwinter.
Click on the linked book titles below to browse and buy. Here's to the return of the light!
Moominland Midwinter goes (almost) without saying, but have you read the gorgeous, funny, intense letters that show the real Moomintroll and Too-ticky, aka Tove and her life partner Tuulikki Pietilä? Letters from Tove, Tove Jansson, translated by Sarah Death, is a feast of gossip, longing and the practical business of being a writer, artist and national treasure, and also being a lesbian at a time that being LGBTIQ+ was taboo in Finland – but fun was still there to be had.
Speaking of queer fun… LOTE by Shola von Reinhold may be the most midwinter book I've read this year, featuring snow, Switzerland and spirits of both the etheric and ethanolic varieties. There are several riotous parties in super fancy rooms and costumes, many intense rituals for communing with queer Black ancestors, a cascade of delicious language, and some excellent satire of contemporary art and work. Altogether a delight, perfect for both lounging and delirium.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin: a planet called Winter, a journey over a glacier, into the heart of gender and power. And follow it up with the wonderful Seized by the Left Hand pamphlet set from Dundee Contemporary Art, which includes CA Conrad's somatics for grieving, Huw Lemmey's snowy rewrite of Gawain and the Green Knight, and Tuesday Smillie's clear-eyed transfeminist address to Le Guin. Beautifully produced pocket essays responding to an exhibition that responded to Le Guin's germinal novel.
To get to grips with the original Sir Gawain, what about everyone's favourite Professor of Old English, J.R.R. Tolkein? Or contemporary poet Bernard O'Donoghue? Or a battle between them? There's also Kazuo Ishiguro's retelling in The Buried Giant. This also seems like a good moment to mention that we are very much looking forward to Maria Dahvana Headley's feminist translation of another early English midwinter poem Beowulf (flagged up by our guest bookseller Andy Miller) making its way to the UK… In the meanwhile, (re)read her The Mere Wife.
If feminist speculative fiction is your (carrier) bag, don't miss Margaret Elphinstone's The Incomer, or Clachanpluck, one of the legendary Women's Press SF titles, republished recently to celebrate its place in the canon of Scottish women's writing. A post-nuclear fable of the forest, sung through with music, as itinerant fiddler Naomi arrives at a small, curious village on a loch, just before midwinter and finds herself staying…
Esi Edugyan's Washington Black, her brilliant take on (and takedown) of Frankenstein has – like Mary Shelley's OG – some astounding Arctic-set scenes. This tale of scientific and exploratory daring that shows the darkness at the heart of the Enlightenment through a powerful account of the brutality of enslavement in the Americas, is one of those "Leave me alone, I'm reading" reads. Also contains literature's greatest octopus.
Maria Turtschaninoff's Maresi Red Mantle is an homage to the greats of feminist SFF. It's also a tough, brilliant YA novel about a determined, talented young woman who returns home from school in her red cloak to find the small northern village where she grew up still in the grip of a colonial overlord – and possessing hidden wisdom she had discounted. Spine-tingling resistance tale. Sally Gardner's The Snow Song is an excellent complement for readers young and old. And of course Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series remains one of the great midwinter (re)reads. There's a Backlisted Christmas episode on the book coming up which will tell you more about it than we can fit in here…
More recent YA with a deep wintry theme: Elen Caldecott's The Short Knife (as recommended to me by Urmi from Pickled Pepper, who were guests on our Psychopodraphy podcast in the spring). Written in a kenning, keening poetic prose that evokes early English and Welsh poetry, this is a bold, cold, burning book that sees post-Roman Britons facing the Saxon invasion. You'll feel it like it was yesterday. For the next generation (of readers and Britons both), I highly recommend Nicola Griffith's brilliant adult historical novel Hild: the scene where Hild trains herself butchly to go bare-armed in winter has stayed with me for years… as has the cliffhanger ending! Awaiting a sequel keenly.
Which reminds me: Hilda season 2 has kicked off on the N*tflix, so read all the Hilda books by Luke Pearson because they're gorgeous: Hilda and the Troll, Hilda and the Midnight Giant and Hilda and the Black Hound are our starters for three.
The Short Knife's use of kenning turns the mind to poetry: for the shortest night and the return of the light we recommend the gorgeous anthology Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás, and a beautiful pamphlet, Lantern, by Seán Hewitt. Both offer the chance to reconnect with the forest, to sit with darkness, and to conjure with language, voice and image in the deep.
It's poetry, it's memoir, it's magic, it's visionary, it's survival, it's everything: Split Tooth, Tanya Tagaq's presence in book form, is like reading the Northern Lights. Dazzling, thrilling, ever-changing, it's a remarkable play of form and voice from a singer-songwriter-writer-performer who is always busting boundaries.
For more survival and light: The Outrun by Amy Liptrot is a book that a lot of readers have found or returned to this year, as a companion in self-isolation and lockdown. For more writing about staying still (and swimming in the cold), I also recommend Through Siberia by Accident by Dervla Murphy, a travel book about what happens when, due to physical challenges, you stay in one place for a winter. And for a fictional take on the melancholy beauty of ending up somewhere deep in snow: the Japanese classic Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, tells a delicate tale of love, class and mountains.
Finally, as any yule know, it's not snow without a dead body under it. Did that start with Midwinter Murder: Fireside Tales from the Queen by Agatha Christie? I don't know, but they're a fun addition to your Golden Age Mystery shelf. For a modern spin (for younger readers, but everyone can enjoy it), there's Murder in Midwinter by Fleur Hitchcock, which has an added The Curious Incident charm, as a young self-styled detective tries to understand adult emotions amid the snow.
And if Nordic noir is your style, have you caught up with Icelandic writer Lilja Sigurdardottir? Snare is the first in a brilliant trilogy that says "Nordic noir but make it working-class lesbians coming up against a drug cartel." A fascinating portrait of Reykjavik as it's lived rather than holidayed, and a fiendish set of interconnected crimes across the trilogy. Happy holidays!