I love reading long, epic books. One of my earliest favorites was The Stand by Stephen King, which I read over several months in eighth grade. I'd lug that huge paperback with me to school, sneaking chapters whenever I could. (I'll never forget the grammar teacher who told me I was reading trash. Ha.) I cried when those 800 plus pages were over. Ever since, I've been eager to replicate that immersive experience. If you're a book lover like me, you know what I mean.
As an adult, though, it's hard to find the time to devote to such a long read. I'll start a big book, then set it aside when I get too busy, then forget what was happening once I pick it up again.
But once a year, rescue comes in the form of winter vacation. I get at least a week (maybe even two) of precious time to dive into a new literary world, in between the parties and baking marathons and seasonal movies. With a lot of those festivities off limits in 2020, we have even more time to cozy up with a great big book. Small consolation for cancelling trips, but hey, it's something.
But make no mistake; I don't just want a summertime beach read. To me, a holiday read has to have the right mood: suspenseful, even scary, yet ultimately uplifting (think A Christmas Carol). I want to be filled with wonder, dang it! It doesn't have to be about Christmas or any specific religious event. But I want to be dreaming about the characters at night and still thinking about them as I'm shoveling snow in January.
Here are some epic reads that, in my view, don't disappoint. Find them at any major retailer or your local library, and I hope you'll have a lovely literary holiday this winter.
The rich, reclusive Mr Norrell has assembled a library of lost and forgotten books from England's magical past. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French. All goes well...until a rival magician appears.
I have a soft spot for sprawling Victorian novels, tales like David Copperfield, The Moonstone, and Middlemarch. I love the excessive verbiage, the sentimental scenes, the endless casts of characters. (And I won't apologize for it! Take that, Modernists.) So I couldn't resist when I heard about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: a sophisticated, smart fantasy written in the style of a British nineteenth century novel. Yet it's also fiercely original and surprising, and oh so much fun.
Neal Stephenson one of those writers who can't be contained by a particular genre. Anathem is ostensibly a science fiction epic, but the depth of the characters, the tightness of the writing, and the breadth of the themes have universal appeal. Anathem is about Fraa Erasmus, a young avout living in a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside world. Once a decade, he's permitted to visit the city outside his sanctuary's walls. But a great change is coming, a discovery that will upend the rules of the life that Erasmus knows, eventually threatening his entire planet and taking him to undiscovered places.
Admittedly, this book is a challenge to get into. Stephenson has created an entire unique world, complete with its own terminology and history. I recommend checking out the Wikipedia page for some hints and translations. But trust me, it's worth it! Once this book sucks you in, you won't be the same.
Here's a relatively shorter read, if your vacation time is limited. It's the story of a magical traveling circus that appears in each location for one night only. Behind the scenes of the black and white tent, two young magicians--Celia and Marco--are competing for dominance. The circus is the stage for their nightly battle. But as they find themselves falling in love, they realize that they're bound inescapably by Fate. And only one of them can be left standing. An absolutely enchanting read, written with beautiful, lyrical prose.
If you've already read this modern classic, then check out Morgenstern's latest, The Starless Sea. I didn't love it quite as much as The Night Circus, but it definitely captures the wondrous mood of the holidays.
If you're familiar with the TV series made from this novel, you might be surprised by this choice of a holiday read. But hear me out. Yes, this book is terrifying. It's claustrophobic. And just like the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter, it's very dark. (As are all of Dan Simmons's phenomenal books). But this fantasy telling of the 1845 Franklin Expedition--complete with a monster out on the ice--is, against all odds, sublimely beautiful and uplifting by the end. I don't want to give away any spoilers. But I was blown away by what Simmons achieved (on an emotional level, at least) with this book.
I also highly recommend Drood, the same author's incredible historical thriller that's about the last, unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. It's not quite so uplifting. But oh, is it deliciously dark. You'll never think of Dickens the same way again.
Late one night, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters written by her father. The letters are all addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor," and they describe a centuries-long hunt to find the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the legend of Dracula. As she picks up her father's quest, she travels across the world and into the depths of Eastern Europe, both through the past and the present.
This one's a slow burn, painting a fantastical portrait of hundreds of years of history. Read this one by candlelight, late at night, with a glass of ruby port. It's less scary and more unsettlingly, creepingly suspenseful. The vampires appear so rarely that the reader wonders, right along with the characters, how much is paranoia and how much is real. But I found the ending immensely satisfying. Just the right amount of moodiness for the winter, especially those days after Christmas or Hanukkah (or your chosen winter holiday) when we're both relieved and disappointed that the party's over.