A dozen books to see you through winter into spring

Many love to have a lazy summer’s day in the park or by the seaside, but there’s something fairly magical about watching the seasons change from the comfort of a cozy armchair with a great book in hand.

Whatever this winter has in store, these  BBC Two Between The Covers Picks will keep you entertained as you “weather the storm of 2021”.

1. The Coward by Jarred McGinnis

The Coward is very much about hurt and forgiveness. It shows how society treats disabled people. And it’s about how we write and rewrite the stories we tell ourselves about our lives – and try to find a happy ending.

The debut novel draws on the author’s own experience of living with disability, and the leading character shares his name.  “The distance between fiction and memoir is measured in self-delusion,” McGinnis writes, gnomically, at the start.

The fictionalised Jarred certainly has no shortage of material, however close or not to the author’s life : when he’s left unable to walk following a car crash at twenty six, it’s the latest trauma in a life riddled with such.

2. Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

What Molley Keane lets us see in this masterpiece is  how Aroon St Charles – the  large and unlovely daughter of the house, the fierce forces of sex, money, jealousy and love – is ‘right’ about behaviour but so frequently wrong about people. She doesn’t see that Richard’s romantic overture is designed to disguise his intense relationship with her brother or that the cook Rose is not merely warming her father’s foot when he is confined to bed after a stroke. Nor does she see her mother’s lack of affection as preposterous. That’s just the way things are. “I don’t blame Mummie… She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had children and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all.  She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either…”

“…Good Behaviour is an enchanting portrayal of the discovery of freedom and loss of innocence.”  

Good Behaviour was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981.

3. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

The novel starts with the couple’s split, then the flashbacks that have the feel of a scribbled diary, serrated and atemporal. Martha’s depression has been subjected to many diagnoses but never received a cure.

Sometimes she cannot move for weeks. But she is a brilliant, singular creation – as Patrick says, “The idea that you might be ordinary is unbearable.”

4. Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo

Imagine growing up knowing very little to nothing about your father except his name. Maybe he’s a banker or a doctor or even an accomplished artist. Perhaps, as in the case of Sankofa, he’s some dictator in some faraway country.

The story follows Anna, a mixed-race British woman. Her adult daughter is living her own life, her cheating husband no longer living with her and her mother, with whom she was never particularly fond of, has been dead for six months. Alone and unsure of who she is, Anna decides to dig into her father’s life. 

5. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

This fascinating, atmospheric story takes us to the slums of 19th-century London, where Sue Trinder is an orphan who has been raised by petty thieves—“fingersmiths.” Her adorable adoptive mother is convinced that Sue will make their fortune someday, and Sue deeply wishes to be able to repay her family for taking her in. 

6. The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Roseanne has been committed to a psychiatric institution for over 60 years, her records are long-lost but as the hospital faces closure, Dr Grene tries to find out her true history and gets himself captivated by her past.  Roseanne is not willing to confide in him but pens down her secrets and puts them away under the floorboards where no one could see – still, the reader is left uncertain about how far to trust her narration.

Told through their respective journals, the story that emerges is at once shocking and deeply beautiful. 

7. Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

In an unidentified Irish town in the mid 80’s, a coal and timber merchant named Bill Furlong is making his deliveries in the run up to Christmas. One early morning, he finds a young lady, Sarah, locked in the coal shed of the Catholic convent. She has been locked there all through a chilly night, presumably as some sort of punishment. We never get to know the reason, because she is too weak and frightened to explain her predicament, and the nuns certainly aren’t telling.

8. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Memories are of significant importance to Teoh Yun Ling as she’s recently been diagnosed with aphasia and faced by a stack reality of mental faculties’ breakdown. She is determined to write everything down while she can.

The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012.

9. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Florence Green has set up the bookshop with her small inheritance augmented by a loan from the local bank. She purchases the damp Old House (putting up with the ghost) and also buys stock. Fortunately for her, she doesn’t have to fight her battle alone. She gets helped by Mr Raven, the marsh man, who brings in his Sea Scouts to put up the bookshelves for her — this in return for her help in holding the slippery tongue of a horse while Mr Raven filed down its teeth; a local girl, Christine, brilliant and tough for her eleven years, comes to help in the shop; and Florence also gets some moral support from the reclusive local squire, Mr Brundish.

The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978.

10. Still Life by Sarah Winman

Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is an art historian and possible spy. She is in Italy on a mission to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view.

Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty sows a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades.

11. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid’s novel takes us into the heart of a city that could easily be Lahore, Aleppo, or Kandahar. “Geography is destiny,” Hamid’s narrator states, and but for geography, Saeed and Nadia could be you or I. Exit West makes visceral how quickly and easily life as we know it can come to a terrifying end. As stated in the novel’s opening pages by the narrator, “One moment we are pottering about our errands as usual,” “and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”

12. Ascension by Oliver Harris

Three friends from a mission many years ago reconnect when one of them dies in mysterious circumstances on remote Ascension Island. Rory Bannatyne had been tasked with tapping a new transatlantic data cable, but a day before he was due to return home he was found hanged. When Kathryn Taylor, on the South Atlantic MI5 desk, begs ex-spy Elliot Kane to go over and investigate, he can’t say no, but it’s an uneasy reintroduction to the intelligence game.