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Ask a Book Critic: Help me love reading again

Our book critic recommends books to get out of a reading rut and more.

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.

If you prefer your recommendations in audio form, you can listen to Ask a Book Critic, part of Vox Quick Hits. Hear a new episode of Ask a Book Critic — always under 15 minutes long — every two weeks wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.

Now let’s get started.

I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom recently, then quickly followed with The Corrections and Purity in rapid succession. I’m looking for books that are similar in style to his. That really capture the reader’s attention, and paints such a vivid image, both of the setting and of the characters. Do you have any recs?

Well, my Franzen-loving friend, you’re in luck, because Franzen has a new book coming out this fall. Keep your eyes peeled for Crossroads in October, which I can confirm is excellent.

But there are many days till then to be filled with reading! I would try some Alice Munro, maybe starting with The Beggar Maid. That one was her breakout book, and it’s just exquisite: It’s a novel in stories that centers loosely on the relationship between a stepmother and stepdaughter over the span of 40 years, with diamond-sharp sentences.

I am tired of reading about people who uproot their lives, go move someplace else (to run a book store in Scotland, or the inn their great-aunt left them, conveniently right after they lost their job/fiancé) and they immediately fit right in and make friends with the coffee shop owner and other small-town characters, one of whom they fall in love with. My family has made several moves, and in this last place, after four years, I still don’t have any friends. So I guess I want a book about moving and not making friends? Or struggling, at least. Feeling lonely? And maybe being okay with it? Or can’t be bothered?

Moving is extremely terrible!

You might like Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, which came out earlier this year. The protagonist moves to Berlin without knowing anyone there, immediately and semi-purposely fails to make any friends, and never really changes that approach.

Another book for you might be Maud Hart Lovelace’s Emily of Deep Valley, which is about a young woman who hasn’t moved but does feel very isolated after she leaves school and doesn’t see good routes for making friends. It’s a much sweeter book than Fake Accounts, but it’s very effective at conjuring up the way you can feel confined to loneliness by the power of your routines.

I am looking for good books with “mature adults” in the storyline. I’ve married, divorced, married, raised kids, retired after working for 40 years, live as a widow now, and want to read stories about this phase of our lives; if we are fortunate enough to get here.

You might like The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert. It’s about a 72-year-old woman named Clementine who used to be a thief (specializing in perfume), but has now retired to set up her own perfume shop in Paris and explore the city’s underground queer cabaret scene. But then: World War II comes, and the occupation. It’s a fun page-turner, and it’s truly not every day you get to see a 72-year-old lesbian at the center of a novel like this one.

I was a voracious reader as a child and teenager, but it fell by the wayside in my early 20s. I am now trying to get back into reading. Even though I’m almost 27, I have started reading and enjoying fantasy fiction YA books. I stayed up reading till 4 am recently after YEARS, and it felt so good! I read a lot of Sarah J. Maas, and the Folk of the Air series. I liked the latter the best.

I’d love your recommendations for fantasy books that have a lot of world building, complex characters with complex motivations, romance, maybe an enemies-to-lovers trope, and maybe a “who did this to you” trope? I love ambitious heroines who aren’t perfect and holier-than-thou. Other than fantasy fiction, I am enjoying rereading Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. I love Austen’s sassy social commentary and knowledge of characters. I also like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams.

Oh boy, do I have some recs for you!

Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On series and Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone series — both have great world building, very satisfying enemies-to-lovers romances, and good ambitious female characters. If you like Sarah J. Maas, you will definitely like the Shadow and Bone series, and I think you’ll get a kick out of watching that heroine get more and more ambitious and less and less perfect.

But if you are in both a YA fantasy place and a Jane Austen place, then I can recommend nothing better for you than Sorcery and Cecilia: Or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede. It’s an extremely charming epistolary novel about two young women in Regency England who have gotten all tangled up in a series of magical schemes with two mysterious young men. It’s a romp, and you’ll love it.

I get nostalgic for my Irish roots in August every year. I live in Milwaukee, home to the largest festival celebrating Irish culture in the world. Irish Fest is making its triumphant post-pandemic return this year, but tragically, I’ll miss it.

I don’t think a book can quite recreate the pulsing bodhrán rhythms and piercing fiddle and whistle lines from the many music stages, but folklore and mythology can take me somewhere pagan and magical. I’m looking for bedtime stories for grown-ups, Irish or otherwise, from pre-civilization. Creation myths and pantheons and magical heroes and ancient curses and mystical forces wielded by small people against the cosmic, that’s what I’m looking for. Not too Lord of the Rings-y, though, I want it to feel like it came from oral tradition.

Have you tried going straight to the source? As you may know, the great Irish epic is The Táin, the tale of the demigod Cú Chulainn and his war with Queen Medb. It was assembled from a series of eighth-century fragments, which makes it tricky to translate, but Ciaran Carson’s 2007 edition does a lovely job. You might also get a kick out of The Mabinogion, the Welsh prose stories from the late 11th/12th centuries. Sioned Davies did a nice translation, also in 2007.

For something a little more accessible, there’s been a small run on contemporary novelists retelling the Norse myths recently. I like Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology for the storytelling, and A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok for the poetry. And for something brand new, Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book is a recent fantasy novel that does some interesting things with folklore in its mythology.

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!