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Ask a Book Critic: What can I read that will make me feel better about being scared?

Introducing Ask a Book Critic, in which we recommend a book to suit your mood.

The reader, Woman lying down and reading, 1870-1875, by Gioacchino Toma (1836-1891), oil on canvas, 31x40 cm.
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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic. In each edition, I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, will provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now, or how you’d like to be feeling instead. If you’d like me to recommend something to you, email me at with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!

All right, gang. Let’s get to it. Let me help you find something to read.

I want Knives Out, but in a book.

The solution here is obviously The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. It’s a classic mystery about a group of strangers who are invited to move into a new luxury apartment building, only to learn that they have been made the beneficiaries of a local millionaire’s will. All of them stand to become very wealthy, if they can solve his riddle.

How about some secret society stuff?

Friend, get ye to Ninth House! Written by Leigh Bardugo, it’s a book where Yale’s secret societies are magic, and they’re also built around exploiting the poor. Our heroine has to police them, but she might be seduced into them herself. It’s a very rich, very absorbing read.

How about a mystery series featuring a clever female sleuth without all the usual tropes?

Have you tried Sarah Galley’s Magic for Liars? It stars a very hardboiled lady detective who’s investigating a crime at the magic boarding school where her sister teaches. Our girl herself doesn’t have magic, however: She’s relying on her wits alone. This one has a really carefully developed magical system that works with the mystery in fascinating ways.

Recommend me something velvety but also wistful.

Oooh, what a mood. Okay, lessee:

Obligatory: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. A group of classics majors at a liberal arts college become very, very close. Murder and mayhem ensues.

Classic: Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. A melancholy love letter to prewar England.

Fantasy: Rose Daughter, by Robin McKinley. A retelling of Beauty and the Beast where every sentence is so carefully constructed that reading it, you feel like you’re watching each line be pulled out one by one from a velvet-lined jewel box.

From the last year: City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. A young girl moves to New York in 1940 to work as a costume designer at a seedy vaudeville theater. Worth a read for the clothes alone.

I’m very anxious and there’s nothing to fix that but I want something that makes me okay with being anxious.

We are all grieving right now. H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is the best book I know of about grief and anxiety and how we are going to all get through this.

Stay safe. Stay inside as much as you possibly can. Read if it will help you. I love you all.

If you’d like me to recommend something to you, email me at with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!

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