Winter’s Tale: Warm Up with These Reads | The Reader’s Shelf

As winter’s chill descends and creates perfect stay-inside-and-read weather, consider spending time with these seven works depicting the beauty and relentless nature of ice, wind, and snow.

Wind speed annotations mark the chapter divisions of Anne Holt’s 1222 (Scribner. 2012. 9781451634723. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781451634884), which begins with the survivors of a train wreck taking shelter in a secluded ski lodge during a blizzard. Among their number are retired inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen, a mysterious group of passengers rumored to be royalty, and a killer. As the storm rages, building banks of snow against the windows and preventing any escape, the body count grows, forcing Hanne to pit her wits against a murderer hiding in plain sight. The feel of the cold and the force of the wind are palpable as Holt spins out her tautly paced and atmospheric mystery.

In effortless and assured prose, Andrea Barrett takes readers on an Arctic exploration in The Voyage of the Narwhal (Norton. 1999. ISBN 9780393319507. pap. $14.95), a story seemingly built around the search for Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition but in actuality is a tale of love, honor, and morality. As naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells and his sister’s betrothed, Zechariah Voorhees, sail away toward adventure in 1855, they set their course on a path that will lead both to folly and heroism. Barrett beautifully evokes the icy seas, the endless dark of winter, and the conditions onboard an iced-in ship as knife-sharp air and snow press relentlessly inward.

Another novel intersecting with the Franklin expedition is Dan Simmons’s The Terror (Little, Brown. 2009. ISBN 9780316008075. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316003889). Here, Franklin’s second in command, Francis Crozier, takes center stage as the expedition becomes ice-bound. Beset by disaster, lacking food, and struggling against unrelenting cold, the enterprise falls apart. Adding to the quickly unfolding doom, a monster living on the ice appears, terrorizing the crew further. Caught between the harsh conditions, which Simmons brings to frightening and chilly life, and a monster of calculating intelligence, Crozier makes a final choice of astounding nerve.

In Lee Child’s 61 Hours (Bantam. 2012. ISBN 9780345541598. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780440339533), a bus crash in a snowstorm lands Jack Reacher in Bolton, SD. As it happens, the town is host to a key witness in a murder case, and something very bad is brewing. Local police, seeing someone more than able to lend a hand, ask Reacher for help. Child excels with settings as well as high-stakes plotting, and while he pits Reacher against a host of bad guys, he also tosses him out into a vividly described frozen landscape and never lets readers forget how cold it is.

Snow is falling, the cold is growing, and both herald the strengthening power of the Dark in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (Margaret K. McElderry. 2010. ISBN 9781442412538. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780689847868), the second title in her classic YA fantasy sequence. On his 11th birthday, falling near Christmas, Will Stanton discovers that he is part of an ancient order with immense power. Joined by others fighting for the Light, Will must gather a number of objects to battle the Dark in a struggle that is largely waged through ice and cold. In highly evocative language, Cooper beautifully weaves Celtic myths and descriptions of a winter like no other into her quickly evolving plot.

In Mark Helprin’s luxuriously written and philosophical Winter’s Tale (Houghton Harcourt. 2005. ISBN 9780156031196. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780547543864), a criminal who is both a master mechanic and a burglar meets a dying heiress when a break-in goes awry. Set in a fairy tale version of New York City, the novel is about a great many things and meanders through vast amounts of time, but it is notable in large part for its lush blend of fantasy and romance, vibrant and lyrically imaginative sensibility, and gorgeous and atmospheric prose. As the story develops, Helprin’s portraits of the city suffering apocalyptic winters and the fantastical icy climes of other locations become dreamlike in their intensity.

As Helprin proves, sometimes capturing the cold is a lyric endeavor. Robert Atwan echoes this understanding in his poetry anthology A Mind of Winter: Poems for a Snowy Season (Beacon, dist by Random. 2011. ISBN 9780807069202. pap. $9.95). He includes well-known poets such as Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath as well as writers some readers might meet here for the first time, such as Peter Davison, Rafael Campo, and Robert Pack. Illuminating the season, the poems range in tone and evoke the bleak emptiness of cold, the memories of seasons, and the architecture of a snowstorm.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at