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Ask a Book Critic: Under-the-radar books that won’t have a long hold list at the library

Vox’s book critic offers recommendations to fit your very specific mood.

Ask a Book Critic Amanda Northrop/Vox
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 latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, 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.

I binged my way through Catherine House this week, a new example of what the kids are calling dark academia. It’s one of those books where you’re on a college campus and it’s all incredibly luxurious but also austere because you’re working so hard, but all of these dark secrets are lurking in the corner. (I learned about dark academia while researching our book-club pick The Secret History, which is arguably the greatest example of dark academia as an aesthetic.) Catherine House is a hallucinatory and woozy take on this aesthetic, and I’m not entirely certain it holds together. Still, I enjoyed the book’s conclusion that to go to metaphorical grad school is to enter into a state of suspended animation.

If you’re not in the mood for dark academia, I’m here for you! Shoot me an email telling me your mood, the more specific the better, and I will find a book just for you.

The recommendation requests below, submitted to me via email and on Twitter, have been edited for length and clarity.

I have read every single book I own, the library is closed, and the holds lists for the ebooks I’m interested in are 20-plus deep. What’s good that is a little older or overlooked that I can find in my library’s ebook collection (or used and cheap)?

Ooh, this is fun! Okay, here are a few options:

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. This is my personal favorite book, about two sisters living in a ruined castle in the British countryside with their James Joycean father. Super-charming narrator, and I always think of it as an allegory for the fight between high modernism and the 19th-century marriage-plot novel.

Cakes & Ale by W. Somerset Maugham. Priggish literary critic has to write a biography acknowledging the artistic greatness of a bohemian woman.

This list is already getting heavy on the midcentury Brits, so what about The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley? It’s a contemporary retelling of Beowulf, with really lovely linguistic play.

Or! Connie Willis writes gorgeous SF. This might be the time for To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is an immensely fun time-travel novel. And finally, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is a smart and fresh short story collection.

What should I read when I feel disappointed by a lover’s response to crisis and cannot decide if it is a temporary malfunction or a fundamental flaw?

Try Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, about a marriage dissolving in the face of a global crisis.

I’m looking for a book with a lonely protagonist, or a book with a protagonist stuck in a situation similar to quarantine, preferably with no one.

Try The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan. It’s about an 18th-century enlightenment philosopher who locks a man in his basement as an experiment. The subject of that experiment has a terrible time, because the philosopher has provided him with nothing but books to amuse himself with, and he cannot read. But luckily for us, we have books aplenty to read, and if you are reading this article, you are well equipped to take advantage of them.

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