Everone's favourite season is here: ‘the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ or, failing that, the season which provides the perfect weather and atmosphere in which to curl up with a book, some blankets and hot beverage of your choice. The only question is, what to read? But fear not, if you are unsure where to start, I’ve compiled a list of books for you to get lost in this season.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel The Doll Factory is a new addition to the growing list of modern gothic novels. Set in London 1850 against the backdrop of the Great Exhibition, it follows aspiring artist Iris who makes a deal with Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost: She agrees to model for him if he will teach her how to paint. As their world and relationship begins to grow, Iris is observed by the eccentric outcast Silas whose obsession with Iris grows ever darker.
Macneal manages to draw the reader into the world of mid century London which she conjures up with lush but digestible prose, serving as the perfect backdrop for the increasingly twisted drama that unfolds. The clearer Silas’s intentions and motivations become, the more chilling his thoughts and interactions seem, keeping the readers engaged right until the end of the novel. The various B-plots and secondary characters work to flesh out the central characters as we see themes of art, ambition, obsession and class emerge through Iris’s relationship with her sister Rose, the intoxicating art world and the squalor and violence of the slums.
The Doll Factory is deliciously dark, tense and gothic and both a perfect addition to historical fiction lover’s shelves and a neat segway into the genre for those new to it.
If We Were Villains by M.L Rio
Beloved in the Dark Academia circles for its university setting, If We Were Villains is the natural follow up to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
If We Were Villains begins with Oliver Marks’ release from prison when he sits down to reveal how he ended up there. As one of seven theatre students in their final year at an elite Arts University, Oliver and his fellow thespians are seeped in the language and themes of Shakespeare as life imitates arts in their secluded, cushioned world. This year, however, the actors must play their roles more convincingly than ever as they work to assure themselves and each other that they are not complicit in the death of one of their number.
Readable and fast paced, this novel is widely adored not only for the urge to pair red lipstick with tweed trousers that it conjures but also for it’s interesting and competent characterisation and intriguing and entertaining premise. Always a skeptic of popular culture, I was very quickly won over by this novel and found myself hardly able to put it down. While seven characters may seem a lot to keep track of and while it would be all too easy to let them fall into cliche, Rio manages to deftly distinguish them from each other and from their archetypes.
We Have Always Lived In the Castle by Shirley Jackson
An oldie but a goodie, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a short but effective novel. It follows eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood who lives in her family house with her elderly Uncle Julian and her delicate sister Constance who was acquitted of murdering the other members of their family. Feared and disliked by the village, the remaining Blackwoods live a quiet and secluded life until cousin Charles comes to pay a visit.
Merricat’s perspective is charming and childlike despite the multiple hardships she has endured and her voice lends the novel a quaint but personal feel. The atmosphere Jackson creates is impeccable, going from eclectic to sinister as the novel progresses. From the very first page it draws the reader into the world of the story, a world that manages to feel both so singular and so fleshed out at the same time and creates alarmingly automatic sympathy for the characters.
While uniquely and skillfully chilling, I think the best part of the novel is Merricat’s slightly off-kilter, seemingly naive world view through which the reader observes the unfolding events. Darkly comic and evocative, this novel has been delighting readers for nearly fifty years and it’s easy to see why.
Hummingbirds by Joshua Gaylord
A personal favourite of mine, Hummingbirds is a thoroughly unique novel set in an all girl’s prep school in New York. While in the beginning, the two female protagonists may be as different as can be, both are discovering the joys and power of their newfound adult femininity and how it impacts those around them. The novel follows them and their relationships with each other and with their beloved English teachers, two of the only males in this decidedly feminine environment. Gaylord approaches the themes of sexuality, power and coming of age with grace, humour and honesty, resulting in one of the most electrifying novels about adolescence that I have ever read.
Avoiding overworked cliches, the cast of Hummingbirds are some of the most vivid and surprising characters I have read, their characters being expertly revealed at the perfect pace to make the reader feel like they are really getting to know them in real time. The approach to power dynamics is handled incredibly well with no tiptoeing around the subject as he paints a frank portrait of the thought processes and actions of both teachers and pupils. I have never read a novel that captures so perfectly what it feels like to be a young woman coming into her femininity and yet, for all that, this novel has so much more to offer than just a coming of age story.
Really it would be perfect to read in any season but the academic setting and the fact it starts in the beginning of September really tips it into the category of ‘perfect books for chilly autumn days.’
IT by Stephen King
How could I make a list of autumn reads and not include at least one Stephen King? I couldn't and I wouldn't which is why I’m including his classic for those who have not yet enjoyed it.
27 years after their summer is ruined by the twisted antics of a murderous clown, a group of friends are drawn back to their hometown to defeat the evil in a final showdown.
I mean unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple decades, you know something about Stephen King’s beloved IT. What you may not know however, is just how truly excellent this book is. While the plot is obviously fantastic and gripping, what really elevates this book from good to great is the characters and relationships: King is a master at creating and developing authentic characters that stay with you long after you’ve finished the novel. Part of what makes this book so scary is how real the characters seem, making the story seem all the more real. While it’s a massive book by any standard, IT is so utterly gripping that it won’t take you very long to get through because I can guarantee you will be reluctant to put it down for any reason.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Possibly my favourite high fantasy novel ever, The Name of the Wind follows Kvothe’s journey from a child in a travelling troupe of players, his escapades as a youth in a city full of crime to his escapades at a school of magic told in his own voice. What makes this stand out from the plethora of high fantasy novels is Rothfuss’s immaculate world building skills. He manages to create an incredibly rich, detailed world without overwhelming the reader with exposition or a lore dump. The way he weaves the world building into the rest of the plot is truly remarkable and add that to the superb characterisation and gripping plot then you’ve got yourself one hell of a good novel.
Another pretty sizable book, The Name of the Wind is so engrossing I can assure you that even the most reluctant fantasy reader will become swept up in it and polish it off in a few days. Not too fast though, because then you’ll join the rest of us who have been eagerly awaiting the third installment of the series since the second’s release all the way back in 2011. But even with that daunting wait in mind, I recommend you grab yourself a copy of this book, your biggest mug of your preferred beverage and just get down to it.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
On the theme of gothic novels, I had to include Du Maurier’s classic tale of romance, intrigue and identity as one of the best books to read in autumn. Another well known tale, Rebecca follows the unnamed heroine from her position as lady’s maid to the wife of the handsome and brooding Max de Winter. Set primarily in Manderly, the forbidding family home of the De Winters, Rebecca provides one of the most feared and sinister antagonists in the form of Mrs. Danvers who keeps the memory of the late Mrs. de Winter alive to torment our herione at every turn.
Our protagonist starts out as the archetypal innocent young woman swept up in danger and mystery out of her control. However she develops a much more distinctive character than her archetype, very much coming into her own as the novel continues. Haunted as she is by the memory of her predecessor and her fears about her relationship with her husband, at no point does she become a prop or narrative device. Instead she remains firmly her own character who goes on a fascinating character arc aside from the deliciously gothic and chilling main plot. With murder, romance and atmosphere; what else could you possibly want from a novel on a chilly autumn day?