Quiet reads for unquiet brains

Recently, my life has been rather chaotic. I’ve been preparing for the release of my sixth novel, “Furyborn” (out May 22). It’s the first installment in a young adult epic fantasy series, and, as I promote its release, I’ve been simultaneously putting the finishing touches on the first draft of book two. These are big books, mind you—sprawling epic fantasies with huge casts, elaborate plots, and cosmic stakes.

Needless to say, I’ve been a bit frazzled.

This is, of course, something all of us go through from time to time. Deadlines approach, to-do lists stretch on and on, chores and homework and house projects pile up. One way I find calm during such hectic times is by re-reading some of my favorite books. I may not read the entire book; I may just read a few chapters, or perhaps simply my favorite scene. I read until I feel my stress level diminish until my brain feels a bit more settled. Then I feel refreshed, re-inspired, and ready to get back to work.

Below are a few books I turn to when I need my ruffled anxiety-feathers smoothed. They all feature lyrical prose, which helps lull me into a state of calm. It’s almost meditative, to read not only familiar words, but also words that feel as carefully crafted as the notes of a symphony.

“The Radiant Road”by Katherine Catmull

This young adult novel has a classic, sophisticated style that will appeal to everyone from advanced middle-grade readers to adults. Grieving the death of her mother, Clare McLeod and her father return to the home of her youth—an ancient stone house in Ireland, with a huge tree growing inside it. Clare soon finds a link between the world of humans and the world of faeries, and with the help of an oddly familiar boy named Finn, takes on an evil force that threatens to tear the two worlds apart forever. It’s a gentle, nuanced book full of subtle magic, understated romance, and language so exquisite it practically sings.

“Bitter Greens”by Kate Forsyth 

An adult historical fiction novel with a fantasy twist, Bitter Greens is the story of three different women: Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a writer in 17th-century France who penned the fairy tale “Persinette,” which the Brothers Grimm later adapted into “Rapunzel.” Selena, a famous artist’s muse in Venice. Margherita, a child given up by her parents after her father stole a handful of bitter greens from a garden. Forsyth weaves together their stories in a sumptuous fairy-tale re-telling, rich with detail and beautifully written.

“I Capture the Castle” by Dodie Smith

One of my favorite narrators of all time is seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain. Cassandra’s impoverished family lives in a decrepit English castle, and to find comfort amid her dreary gray surroundings, Cassandra practices writing in her journal. Her literary voice sparkles with wit, full of poignant observations of the people and world around her. This is a book I love reading aloud. The rhythm of Cassandra’s voice—and Smith’s writing—makes me feel like I’m wandering about a leaky, drafty English castle, daydreaming and falling in love. But, you know, without actually having to live in said castle.

“The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

I read this book when it was first published, back in 2012, and fell utterly, head-over-heels in love. It’s the story of Jack and Mabel, who live alone on a homestead in the brutal Alaskan wilderness. They desperately want a child but are unable to have one. But, one night, in a fit of whimsy, they build a child out of snow; the next day, they find a little girl running wild in the woods. They adopt her as their own, and what happens next changes them both forever. This is a book with language as dreamy and pristine as the untouched landscape of its setting. Ivey weaves a delicate magic on every page.

“Fire” by Kristin Cashore

This is one of my favorite books of all time, a fantasy novel for young adults set in the kingdom of the Dells, where protagonist Fire is the last human monster—a being of incredible beauty who can also control minds. Cashore’s second novel (a companion to her debut, “Graceling”) is written in spare yet lyrical prose, and explores themes of female power, found family, rape culture, and the perils of growing up female. I vividly remember reading this book for the first time, years ago, and bursting into tears at the end of a certain chapter. Not because anything particularly dramatic had happened, but simply because the book had—gently, inexorably—been building to a point of tender emotional catharsis. Fire is a story defined most of all by love and hope. My copy is well-worn; I read it often, for inspiration and for peace.

“Atonement” by Ian McEwan

I should clarify: I’ve only read this novel in its entirety once. The later sections of the book are far too emotionally devastating and war-focused to be a comfort read for me. But the first section, which takes place at the luxurious countryside estate of a wealthy English family, is a master class in atmosphere. Small moments take on tragic significance through McEwan’s lavish descriptions—and through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (who happens to be another of my favorite all-time narrators). Though every scene bears the weight of a slowly creeping dread, the atmosphere, setting, and extravagant details are so delicious that I can’t resist returning to Atonement’s opening chapters again and again.

Primary photo courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Dooley.

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