Book Club

What to Read in Winter 2021.

By: Jen Shoop

A midday note to my Magpies: My blog was down this morning for a few hours; I apologize if you were throttled or served an error message. Now that I seem to have resolved the issue, I wanted to say that — wow. Yesterday was not an auspicious start to the new year. Does it occasionally feel that we are just waiting on that fourth horseman? I was also reminded this morning of some of the comments on this post about hitting the reset button in the face of frustration, hurt, anger, etc. My personal ambition in times of darkness is to angle for light, and so I will continue to share as much positivity as I can here. If you need a palate cleanser, the roundup of books below might be just the ticket. That said, some of them are serious drags…! You might want to skip Shuggie at the moment…

Hang in there, friends.

P.S. Today only, Zora Neale Hurston’s exceptional Their Eyes Were Watching God is available for free audiobook download via Libro.FM! This book is absolutely gorgeously written and I can’t wait to experience in audio. Details here.


One of my goals for 2021 is to be more intentional about carving out time to read, and one thing that is helping me get in the mode is a very full and very exciting tsundoku pile.

Below, my top reading picks for the start of 2021:

+For spirit-boosting, feel-good fiction: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. This book is earning a lot of press right now and I was surprised to see how many Magpies were reading this when I performed an informal poll on Instagram. The book is an engagement with the choices we make in our lives and the alterities that could have been. In the words of the book jacket: “Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life.”

+For an intimate portrait of grief and marriage based on the life of Shakespeare: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. A fictionalization of the life of Shakespeare focusing specifically on his marriage to an eccentric falconer named Agnes and their grief over the sudden death of his young son. I had several Magpies positively rave about this book.

+For a difficult but exceptionally well-written story of childhood trauma in 1980s Scotland: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This was the first book I completed this year, and — despite its considerable length — I devoured it in a few days. The writing is excellent and the narrative darkly compelling. It is the haunting, deeply sad story of a tender-hearted boy coping with poverty, his own sexuality, abandonment, a mother who is struggling with alcoholism, and all manners of violence and cruelty as he grows up in the public housing of 1980s Scotland. It is bleak, difficult reading — I had to take breaks to quiet the heartburn and voyeuristic agony — and yet I could not stop reaching for it, and it has not left my mind (or heart) since I finished. Reading was like watching a train wreck happen in slow motion. The specificity and brutality of the injuries, embarrassments, and heartaches that befall young Shuggie are painful to endure as a reader, especially knowing that the author’s own background is similar to Shuggie’s — Stuart, too, lost his mother to alcoholism at a young age and grew up in working-class Scotland in the 80s. It is difficult not to wonder which of the horrific events of the stories happened to the author himself. What struck me as most moving and masterful was the generous way in which Stuart paints the mother, Agnes, as a woman who suffers terrible violence, hurt, and harm and then also endures the horrific burden of addiction and yet still attempts to carry her head high and show her sons the most love she can. The scene in which she sets fire to her home and yet survives is a rich invocation of her namesake, Saint Agnes, who was burned at the stake but did not die from the flames — and her devolution into alcoholism follows a similar pattern in which she appears continuously consumed. Meanwhile, Shuggie’s tenderness and devotion to his mother is as heart-wrenching as the author’s humane portrait of her (suggestive of a personal reckoning with his own mother): he skips school to care for her, tenderly removes her stockings and dentures when she has passed out after too much drinking, and eternally hopes for her recovery. He is a child forced to mature too quickly, and he bears the full force of the judgment and castigation of his community, both for the “sins” of his mother, the abandonment of his family by his father, and his own burgeoning homosexuality. Shuggie is an exile, an outsider, in every sense of the word, alienated even from his own siblings and isolated from his mother by virtue of her addiction. From a craft standpoint, there are segments of the book describing the decrepitude and stagnation of 1980s Glasgow that were nearly Joyceian in their poetic yet realistic representation of place and self and the relationships between, and the invocation of the physical in the book is unbelievably rich. There are scenes of hair pulled from heads, skin split open, legs bruised that are so clearly described they made my stomach turn. And there are visions of the sooty, tar-covered mine fields of Glasgow, and the squat and desolate housing schemes in which its residents live close by, that are so vividly painted, I nearly feel I’ve been there before. All in all, an incredible, albeit disturbing, achievement that left me in a fog.

+For a tender coming-of-age story: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. This is Brunt’s debut novel, and it has been earning considerable acclaim. In it, Brunt tells the coming-of-age story of a young girl who loses her eccentric uncle, the only person who she feels understands her.

+For a creepy marital thriller: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. Described as “a mix of Hitchcockian suspense, Agatha Christie plotting, and Greek tragedy” in which a well-to-do wife shoots her husband and refuses to speak about why she has done so, transforming the tragedy into a mystery that captures the attention of their community. My cousin — who shares similar tastes in thrillers (Ware, La Pena!) loved this one.

+For a suspense focused on class, family, and race: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. A few Magpies raved about this one, too! In it, “two families, strangers to each other, are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong.”

+For a moving love story between mother and daughter: Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (to be released on Jan 26). Described as a love story between mother and daughter, this novel earned the Booker Prize (just like Shuggie Bain) in 2020. The book jacket is compelling: “In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, endured a brief stint as a beggar (mostly to spite her affluent parents), and spent years chasing after a dishevelled, homeless ‘artist’ – all with her young child in tow. Now she is forgetting things, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a woman who never cared for her.”

What else are you reading? What else would you suggest?

P.S. Gifts for book lovers — including some fun finds for yourself.

P.P.S. Trending books for children.

P.P.P.S. My favorite audiobooks!

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32 thoughts on “What to Read in Winter 2021.

  1. Hi! I’m in the middle of reading Circe based on your suggestion (and loving it!!) and I just randomly read an article about how it’s apparently being made into a mini series for HBO Max. I felt compelled to share this with you, in case you didn’t already know. 🙂

    1. Ooo!! Thank you so much, Rachel! I had heard of this months and months ago but totally forgotten. V excited.


  2. Hey Jen! Did you ever end up reading “Leave the World Behind”? I just finished it and I’m…shook? I don’t even know how to describe my feelings. I didn’t want to keep reading at some points because I was so disturbed, and yet I had to know what happened? So much to unpack.

    Xx, V.

    1. Veronica! OMG, that book. It was so, so dark and the sense of foreboding has stayed with me … I find myself thinking of various descriptions here & there and freaking myself out! What did you think of the ending?

      I personally think it was a worthy read (in case you’re still debating it, Jen!)

    2. MK,

      Agreed! It was a great read overall. I don’t want to give too much away for Jen (def let us know what you think if you end up reading it please!), but the TEETH scene…djfsl. I loved that it closed out with Rose’s perspective, but I wish we would’ve gotten more answers. Then again, there was a lot of foreshadowing…

      What did you think?!

    3. I agree! Love that it closed out with Rose, and part of me definitely wishes there had been more answers, but I thought it was actually quite effective to leave some (many?) things up to the reader’s imagination. Overall, I would recommend it! It’d be a great book club pick — lots to discuss.

  3. Thank you for this exciting list of books to read! I’ve had Leave the World Behind on my list (having read one of Rumaan Alam’s books in the past) and Burnt Sugar sounds intriguing, too.

    I have been reading sooo slowly lately — I JUST finished David Chang’s memoir, which we discussed a lot last fall! — and have simultaneously been working on the novel Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han, which is good if a bit quiet (i.e. I don’t find myself gravitating towards it in my free time, and it takes a bit more effort to get into each time I pick it up). I think I may go for a slightly fluffier novel next, and for my next nonfiction book, I think I’ll either dive into Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen (LOVE her writing) or The Longing for Less by Kyle Chayka (also love his writing for The New Yorker, among others!)


  4. I received The Midnight Library as a Christmas gift and just started reading it this weekend and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s such an interesting concept and such a true reality – one small decision can drastically alter your whole life. I’m only 1/3 of the way in, but I can’t help but think of the “what ifs” and “regrets” I have and how things could have gone in a different direction if not for a decision made (hopefully all decisions we’ve made are for the better!). Although as you posted recently if things are not going in the direction we want, we hopefully have the courage to start all over again.

    1. So intrigued by this book, Katie – thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to dive in. I have SO many books burning a hole in my pocket (?). Can’t wait.


  5. I just finished The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood. It was lovely – alternately surprisingly funny and affecting.

  6. Love these reccs, thank you! Currently reading Hamnet, it’s beautifully written, although I’m readying myself for heartbreak.

    This is a bit of a controversial opinion, but I HATED The Silent Patient- found it plodding and the protagonist beyond irritating. Will be curious what you think!

    1. Oooo! I’m so excited to jump into Hamnet. Can’t wait!

      Thanks also for the opinion on The Silent Patient. You aren’t the only one! My mother was lukewarm on it, and so were a few readers who messaged me about it over DM. On the flipside, my cousin loved it and a number of other Magpies raved about it! Can’t wait to check it out myself 🙂


  7. I just finished “The Midnight Library.” I had previously read “Red At The Bone” and the writing was almost poetic, with thoughtful, subtle messaging that stayed with me for weeks. In comparison, “The Midnight Library” was so….forced. At times it read more like a self-help book with it’s Pinterest-worthy quotes about life, death and the meaning of it all. It was a quick, entertaining read though. I’m so curious to hear other’s thoughts on it. Starting “Anxious People” right after I finish up a dog training book — gaahhh — hoping for some helpful advice with puppy nipping!

    1. Hi Amy – YES. “Red at the Bone” as absolutely exquisite and easily one of the best books I read in 2020. Woodson is nothing short of brilliant.

      Thanks for the caveat on “Midnight Library”!!! Is it weird that I like a book with controversy/polarizing opinions? Always makes me eager to jump into the fracas and figure out why it’s garnering so much attention. I had a similarly contrarian perspective on “The Lions of Park Avenue.” So many people (including many Magpies) loved it but I absolutely hated it and had to put it down! I found the characters so cloyingly one-dimensional and unrealistic and the central themes (so far as I could make them out before abandoning) felt very dated to me. I think this reaction was in part conditioned by the fact that I’d just read “The Vanishing Half,” which was so substantive and artfully done…


    2. Not at all! I am the same, and that’s probably why I picked up The Midnight Library in the first place. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of it.

  8. One of my resolutions is to branch out in my reading. I’ve been finding myself reading thriller after thriller (usually with unlikeable female narrators – I think maybe Gone Girl is responsible for this trend?) and while I devour them quickly, I always feel a bit icky when I’m done.

    Midnight Library sounds right up my alley, and the description reminds me a bit of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I loved. Highly recommend if you haven’t read it.

    I’m currently reading Prozac Nation, which I’ve had earmarked for awhile. Only about a quarter of the way through, but so far I’m really impressed with her writing.

    1. Hi Rachel – I am so with you on the unlikable female narrators in these thrillers! They all follow a pattern and so much of the text is focused on their trembling, their headaches, their inability to see straight. It’s in some ways not unlike the fainting damsel in distress of the Gothic novel! Bring the smelling salts!

      I haven’t read the Atkinson book, though have heard good things! Keep me posted on Prozac Nation.

      Thanks for chiming in here, friend!


  9. Ooooo so many good recs here!! I have to add Midnight Library as it sounds right up my alley (and a welcome reprieve from the insanity of our world right now!)

    I’m currently reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil after having it on my list for so many years. I’m loving the depiction of Savannah – the good, the bad, the ugly – it’s fun to get to learn about a place when travel is impossible.

    1. I loved that book, too, but I read it about two decades ago now, in high school! (How can I be so old?!) Love the idea of pointedly using books with prominent settings as an alternative to travel these days…

      Cheers to new destinations in 2021!


  10. ALWAYS love book suggestions! Midnight Library is on my list, as well as Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. Currently reading a Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki — having a hard time getting into it though, so I may be abandoning it for something lighter and brighter. 🙂
    Praying for brighter days of enlightenment, peace, and some degree of harmony. xo H

    1. Thank you, Heidi! I hear you on leaning into a bit of the lighter fare these days…thanks for sharing your own book list!


  11. Shuffle Bain and Midnight Library are both on my list! Your mention of Tell the Wolves Im Home pulled my heart strings. I read it years ago and considered rereading it after seeing the paperback in a book store last week. If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller… I couldn’t put down The Wife Upstairs; a Southern gothic retelling of Jane Eyre.

    1. Oo — glad to have a strong review of “Tell the Wolves” already. Thanks, Sarah! “Wife Upstairs” sounds right up my alley. Can’t wait to dig into that one!


  12. Love to hear your reading picks! The Silent Patient has been on my Libby app holds list for a while, hoping to get to it soon. I hate that I can’t renew ebooks! I don’t know if I could bear it if I was almost done with a suspenseful book and the app snatched it away before I was done. Speaking of suspense, I just finished listening to Mexican Gothic. Still deciding how I feel about it, and the ending made me so anxious! Someone pls read ASAP so we can discuss!

    On the nonfiction front, I’m in the middle of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Very interesting read – I’ve long wondered what caused certain areas of the world to develop at different rates than others. I want to read more nonfiction, but I find it slows my reading momentum, even when I’m enjoying the book. Also, I prefer to read novels before bed, and before bed is the only time I’m reading these days! Besides audiobooks, that is.

    A few books I’m planning to read soon are West With the Night, This Must Be the Place, Before the Coffee Gets Cold (I’m always up for a time travel book!), Book of Longings, and The Winter Sea, and The Tuscan Child.

    Oh and P.S. I highly recommend Last Christmas in Paris! I read it last month but it’s not as Christmasy and it sounds and can be enjoyed any time of year.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your tsundoku pile! These sounds so good. Please report back on favorites/must-reads, and I’ve already added “Last Christmas in Paris” to my list.


  13. I LOVED Shuggie Bain and Hamnet. I’m about to read The Prophets (Robert Jones, Jr.) and then The Mystery of Mrs. Christie (Marie Benedict). If you’re looking for a great and fairly quick read, definitely try Atomic Love (Jennie Fields) — a Cold War novel set in Chicago with a female protagonist! I especially appreciated it as a Chicagoan and when Ann Patchett recommends something, I listen!

    1. Thank you so much for these, Claire!! I think “Hamnet” will be next after I tear through “The Silent Patient,” but v intrigued by the Fields novel! Merci.


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