Winter’s Tales: five BIG books

Put on your comfiest flannel pjs and an oversized hoodie, make yourself a pot of tea (or something stronger) and settle down with one of these hefty tomes ‘cos, baby, it’s cold outside!

In a perfect world we’d do little but read, yet alas, time is short, our days are busy and when the only reading time we have are those few moments snatched on the train, during lunch breaks and in bed before falling asleep it can be hard to get properly engrossed in a big book. And yet, some of the best stories are those that sprawl, and in recent years there’s been a trend towards longer novels. Fortunately, with it’s raging storms and biting cold, winter offers many a long and dismal evening perfect for staying close by the heater and utterly abandoning yourself to a rambling narrative. We’ve raided our bookshelves to find five of our favourites. If we’ve left something off the list, let us know in the comments below.

The Goldfinch By Donna Tartt (2013)

The GoldfinchDickensian in scope and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer PrizeThe Goldfinch is both a dark and joyous romp, a story that delights in its own telling. It begins with the bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Under the instruction of a dying man, thirteen-year-old Theo Decker smuggles a painting, Carel Fabritius’ ‘The Goldfinch’ from the rubble and sets out across New York to find a mysterious green door. Over the next fifteen years Theo, with paining in tow, drifts from Manhattan to the suburban fringe of Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back. Along the way he is befriended by a wonderfully eccentric cast of characters: Borris, a fearless Russian mafia brat with an Aussie accent and a taste for mischief; Hobie, gentle giant and antique restorer; reclusive Mrs Barbour hiding from the world in her darkened bedroom; lovely, invalid Pippa with her genius for music. Best of all it’s narrated in Tartt’s sumptuous, meaty prose.

Like Tartt’s earlier novelsThe Goldfinch is something of a children’s adventure story all grown up, complete with a dead mother, buried treasure, smugglers, enchantments and an epic coming-of-age quest. It dances the line between desire and destruction, holds up to the light our fatal attraction to art and beauty and responds to the age old maxim: ‘Follow your heart’ with an insidious question: ‘What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted?’

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013)

The luminariesDespite it’s 800+ pages, The Luminaries is a tightly controlled narrative, and watching all the improbable pieces fall into place is part of the fun. Set in the New Zealand town of Hokitika at the height of the gold rush, the story is a good, ol’ fashioned mystery complete with mistaken identities, opium, scandalous affairs, dead men, whores and GOLD. Each player in the mystery is aligned with a planet (‘the luminaries’) and setting out to restore order are twelve men, each corresponding to a sign of the Zodiac. The true genius of Catton’s narrative is in the way the characters’ actions are dictated by their stars, the heavens aligning to restore order. Just twenty-eight when The Luminaries was published, Catton became the youngest writer and The Luminaries the longest novel to win The Man Booker Prize.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (2013)

The Signature of All ThingsAlma Whittaker—precocious, studious, decidedly homely and possessed of aristocratic eccentricity—is destined to be remembered as one of fiction’s great protagonists. Her story spans a century and crosses continents. From a privileged childhood amid the green houses of her father’s rambling Philadelphia estate, to the jungled mountains of Tahiti to the ordered botanical gardens of Amsterdam, as one of the leading botanists of her day Alma travels the world in pursuit of the mosses she studies and an elusive love that challenges her reasoned heart and pulls her toward the mystic and the divine.


The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (2002)

The Crimson Petal and the WhiteSet in 19th century London, The Crimson Petal and the White is the story of two women: the wife and whore of wealthy businessman William Rackham. The former is delicate Agnes, who perfectly embodies the Victorian feminine ideal. She lives only for ‘the Season’, maintains a childlike naiveté about sex and all relating to it, to the point of denying the existence of her own daughter and goes quietly mad in her cloistered life. By contrast, the prostitute and aspiring novelist, Sugar, has been using sex to her advantage since the tender age of thirteen. In catching Rackham’s eye she sees an opportunity to pull herself out of London’s underworld and establish herself among the rich and powerful.

If 833 pages of Sugar isn’t enough (trust us, it isn’t) there’s also a a spin off short story collection, The Apple (2006), and a mini series starring Romola Garai, Chris O’Dowd, Amanda Hale and Gillian Anderson.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)

Jonathan Strange and Mr NorrellWhat would make the Napoleonic Wars more exciting? Magic, that’s what. Mr Norrell believes himself to be the only true magician in England, a title of which he is much proud having achieved it through years of taxing research and effort. Then along comes wunderkind Jonathan Strange—making up what he lacks in experience with raw talent. Initially the two magicians work as master and apprentice and are enlisted by the government to assist in the war against France. However, as his skill grows Jonathan Strange becomes increasingly disinterested in casting spells by the book and petty games of oneupmanship with Mr Norrell and goes seeking a deeper, darker magic.

Like her magicians, Clarke combines diligent research with flights of fancy to weave an enchantment dark, powerful and utterly compelling.

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