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Ask a Book Critic: Autumnal books to get you ready for fall

Vox’s book critic recommends campus novels to set the mood for virtual learning, and more.

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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’m looking for a fiction book with amazing prose, specifically set in autumn. Preferably from a female point of view. Some of my favorite books are The Girls by Emma Cline and Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. I’m currently enjoying The Idiot by Elif Batuman (one of your recommendations) but really looking for something cozy, or maybe a little spooky, to get into the fall season!

The obvious pick for you is Ali Smith’s Autumn. It’s the first book in her seasons quartet, which is thematically all about the state of the UK post-Brexit. Smith writes impeccable, playful, very allusive prose that should meet your standards, and her main character is a woman in her 30s, working precariously in academia, who is best friends with a 101-year-old man.

You also strike me as someone who would appreciate A.S. Byatt. She writes very rich, beautiful, Victorian-inflected prose, often about women intellectuals. Her most famous book Possession begins in summer, but I hold it to be spiritually autumnal: It’s about two Victorian literature scholars who begin to suspect their subjects secretly had an affair, and also about critiquing Freud. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous book.

Online learning has left me seeking fiction with the aesthetics of academia and I generally like to read things with some speculative fiction elements, but there’s been a real glut of “school for magic” stories that I’m burnt out on. I’ve enjoyed Tam Lin, Ninth House, Waking the Moon, and (back in the day) Frankenstein. Can you recommend other fantastic stories set in, at least at surface level, ordinary-seeming universities?

You might try The Lightness by Emily Temple. It’s a bit off the dark academia path as it’s set in a school for meditation and is aesthetically pretty light-filled (like the title suggests!), but it has the structure and thematic play of a campus novel. It is also about teen girls being witchy, which is truly the best plot.

You could also give Tana French’s The Likeness a try. It’s mostly a mystery, but the inciting incident is lightly supernatural: A grad student has been murdered, and the detective assigned to her case looks exactly like her. There’s never an explanation for their shared appearance, but the detective goes undercover as the murder victim, which allows French to play around with doppelgängers and the idea of a shadow self. (Incidentally, French’s other campus novel, The Secret Place, is also about teen girls being witchy, but it feels much less magical in that book than in either The Likeness or The Lightness.)

Finally, the new companion trilogy to the Dark Materials books, The Book of Dust, takes place primarily in a fantasy version of Oxford. I’m thinking it could break through your “school for magic” doldrums — fantasy Oxford exists in a magical world, but it is not a school where people teach magic.

I’m a voracious reader with very eclectic taste and never normally short of a book, but I’m beginning to feel like what I’m looking for might not exist. I really just want to see someone like me in my fiction.

I became disabled as an adult (fibromyalgia and now use mobility aids) and it just wasn’t the end of my world. There have been some tough times, sure, and letting go of some things, but it was neither the absolute personal disaster I often see in fiction or the inspirational overcoming of adversity you see in a lot of memoirs.

I’m looking for something fictional that has a disabled protagonist where their disability is treated as a facet of their lives and not either their entire personality or the thing the plot revolves around. Some of my favorite authors are Neil Gaiman, Agatha Christie, and Sharon Kay Penman, which shows a bit of the wide range I’m happy to look at to find a book about someone just like me.

Here are a few possibilities.

You might consider the Cormoran Strike books by Robert Galbraith. Galbraith is J.K. Rowling’s pen name, so if you decide to read them you have to figure out how you feel about her transphobia, but on their own merits they compose a pretty solid detective series. (Excluding the most recent volume, Troubled Blood, which is hellishly boring and also has a transphobic subplot.) The main character, Cormoran Strike, is a vet who had part of his leg amputated in the war, and while that obviously affects his life (e.g. he has to figure out how much weight he can put on his prosthetic, and when his leg is too irritated to deal with the prosthetic at all), it’s not at all his defining characteristic.

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo are a fantasy duology set in the same universe as her Shadow and Bone trilogy, but they’re both much better than the main trilogy. Bardugo is one of those writers who becomes a more interesting author with every book she writes, and with Six of Crows she’s really reaching her peak. These two books make up a heist story, and they’re really fun. The main character, Kaz, has a bad leg and walks with a cane, but his main thing is being a criminal prodigy.

Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy has a recurring subplot about chronic illness. These books cover the life of Thomas Cromwell, chief fixer to Henry VIII, and one of the many issues Cromwell has to deal with is that he has a recurring fever. He first picked it up as a young man in Italy, and at various times throughout these three books he’ll find himself confined to his bed by it. The series is also just extremely beautiful and immersive, and I think they have one of the most interesting approaches to interiority I’ve seen in contemporary fiction.

The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles is a favorite novel of mine. It’s about two sisters in Brazil in the 1930s, one of whom becomes a great seamstress; the other becomes an outlaw and in the process loses her hand. There’s a lot about how she learns to live her life without her hand, and it’s also just a really lovely, exciting book.

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!