A Twelvemonth of Adventure : Great Books for Each Month of the Year
Updated: Nov 1, 2022
Originally posted in October 2018
Disclaimer: I am American, so many of these recommendations are based in the cultures and seasons of my own country. That said, if you come from a different culture and want to add your own to my list, please feel free to add them in the comments! Thanks! ~JC
I was falling asleep last night when it hit me:
It's almost Christmas.
As usual when I ruminate on this time of year, I thought then, in-tandem, of a particular book which, for me, goes hand-in-hand with the season. Then I wondered: is there a book that reminds me of every month of the year?
"Yes", I replied to me. "The answer is yes."
So, in the spirit of keeping my sanity while I wait for my beta readers to finish my manuscript, and in the spirit of keeping all of our sanity by reminding us that there WILL be a 2017 despite how it may feel right now, I've compiled a list of great books to read for each month of the year. (Of course, your mileage may vary.)
January can be a depressing month. Between the freezing cold weather and the jarring sudden silence of bygone holiday bustle, it can feel as silent and cold as a tomb. To combat those feelings of woebegone cheer, one must read a book that is warm and fun, exciting and lighthearted. For me, no stories fulfill these requirements quite like Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
Many people liken Chaucer to Shakespeare or Dante, but he's really much more like Monty Python. The Canterbury Tales was originally published in 1478, a time that most modern people liken to molasses running over an iceberg. During that time, 99.99% of literature, art, architecture, etc. etc. etc. was based on Christianity, so it's no wonder one would assume these stories would be as well. But while the characters in Canterbury ARE on a religious pilgrimage, that fact is only discussed at the beginning as a backsetting to the stories themselves -- which are as secular and hilarious as they can get.
Here is an excerpt to illustrate my point:
This Nicholas had risen for a piss, And thought that it would carry on the jape To have his arse kissed by this jack-a-nape. And so he opened window hastily, And put his arse out thereat, quietly, Over the buttocks, showing the whole bum; And thereto said this clerk, this Absalom, "O speak, sweet bird, I know not where thou art." This Nicholas just then let fly a fart As loud as it had been a thunder-clap, And well-nigh blinded Absalom, poor chap; But he was ready with his iron hot And Nicholas right in the arse he got.
Translation: Nicholas, who's sleeping with the Miller's wife while he's away, wakes up to take a pee and hears Absalom, another lover, out the window, calling for a kiss from her. So Nicholas goes over and sticks his butt out the window, which Absalom accidentally kisses in the dark. Angry at the joke made on him, Absalom burns Nicholas on the butt with a red-hot brand.
I love these stories because they show that even in the Dark Ages, humanity had a sense of humor. Plus, they're great to read with a glass of rum while sitting by a fire on cold January nights when you need a good, warm laugh.
Here's a link to a modernized version online. Enjoy!
February is all about love... even if you'd rather it wasn't. Sometimes Valentine's Day can be pretty hard to go through, especially if you're alone or your relationship is struggling. In fact, even if you're madly in love romantically, it can be hard to feel love in the deepest month of winter when everything seems dead and people are seriously cranky... especially when you tell them "Happy Valentine's Day!"
Enter A Switfly Tilting Planet by Madeline L'Engle.
Though the third book in this amazing science fantasy series doesn't get nearly as much press as its big sister, A Wrinkle in Time, for me no story can be more emotionally fulfilling. At its best, time travel can be a roller coaster of fun, adventure, and excitement, but A Switfly Tilting Planet tilts even the best of time travel on its edge, adding a roller-coaster level of love for-and-about our own human race that we could all stand to remember.
The intrepid Charles Wallace travels through time in this story, yes, but he does it through the eyes of the people who are living that time, and the whole point is to understand them -- their struggles, their hopes and dreams -- and how each of them adds their own love and light to the tapestry of humanity.
Romantic love also holds a place here, as Charles' sister Meg is now married to Calvin and pregnant with their baby. And if you want classic romance, there's nothing better than "Patrick’s Rune", the ancient poem that Madeline L'Engle skillfully weaves in and through the story itself:
At Tara to-day in this fateful hour I place all Heaven with its power, And the sun with its brightness, And the snow with its whiteness, And fire with all the strength it hath, And lightning with its rapid wrath, And the winds with their swiftness along their path, And the sea with its deepness, And the rocks with their steepness, And the earth with its starkness: All these I place, By God’s almighty help and grace, Between myself and the powers of darkness.
Seriously. If you've never read this book, get it. Read it. If any other story illustrates the abyssal depth of love better, I haven't read it.
I see March as the early dawn of the year, when we're just starting to see the sunlight poke above the treetops. It's in March that the light at the end of the tunnel of winter begins to glow. After months cooped up inside we want to venture out, have adventures, and explore, but the weather is still not quite ready for all that.
For this reason, March is the perfect month for an epic fantasy marathon. Not only does it get us out of the house metaphorically, it also makes the days go by faster so that, when we're finished reading, perhaps the world outside will be ready for us to have our own adventures.
Now, I could go the easy route and list Tolkein's classic fantasy series here, but if you're reading this, chances are you've read that already if not watched the films. Besides, you don't need just four books (including The Hobbit in there) when you're waiting out the end of winter -- you need a serious series. Like, say 14 really long, intricate, teeth-sinking books.
Allow me to introduce to you Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series!
You may already know of this series -- it is pretty popular, after all -- but whether you know of it or not, I'm still going to recommend it. For escaping into another world full of deep characters, magic, mystery, intrigue, and adventure, you would be hard pressed to get better. Of course, if you have read this series all the way through multiple times, I have a great runner-up to offer which you probably haven't read: The "Godslayer" Chronicles by James Clemens. Trust me, you'll love it, too!
We all know April is rainy, but it's the kind of rainy we don't mind. Sometimes it's cold rain, reminding us that the chill isn't quite finished, but other times it's warm, hearkening the coming of spring by melting whatever snow remains from the dying winter. If you're going to see rain and sunshine at the same time, chances are you'll see it in April. (And yes, that's a thing.) April is a time of balance -- between ice and water, storms and sun.
Thus, the perfect month for poetry.
Poetry is the song of the soul. If any genre personifies the storm of emotions that April represents, it's poetry. Up and down, hot and cold, love and hate, they're all there.
The book I am recommending is, of course, only one of billions of books, tomes, scrolls, chapbooks, and anthologies that contain the poetry of the world. However, I recommend this book specifically for two reasons: one, if you don't read a lot of poetry it's a great shapshot of some of the greatest poems and poets of our time, and a BIG two, it comes with CDs of the poets reading their own work, including Tennyson, Plath, and even Whitman! Amazing recordings these are, though some are haunting in their antiquity, but absolutely perfect for transferring to mp3 files to listen to while out on a stroll during April's gorgeous rain-dappled days.
Ahh May. It's getting warm and dry now and we can go outside a lot more often. Most people do just that, beginning to stock their camping supplies and offering early-annual backyard BBQs to their friends and family. School is still in but everyone there -- students and teachers alike -- has the summer-itch. Kite-flying and skydiving reach an all-time high (see what I did there? Heh) in May as well. Energy is also high, as we feel the natural buzz of sunshine coursing through our veins.
So, what better to do in this energetic month of joy than revisit classic childhood favorites?
I wanted to keep this list one book per month, but to be fair if you're an adult you can read these stories back-to-back no problem, and honestly as a lover of children's literature I couldn't choose just one. From The Wizard of Oz to James and the Giant Peach; from Anne of Green Gables to Half Magic, reading in May should be full childlike fun and adventure. You can find a wonderfully exhaustive list of every book I would personally recommend, and then some, here so you can truly enjoy May at its lighthearted and sunny best!
I'm kind of partial to June. Maybe it's because school is out and the kids are happy. Maybe it's because my birthday falls almost in the middle of it, or maybe it's just the way the sun shines high in the sky. For whatever reason, I think June is a pretty great month. During this time, however, people aren't inclined to read much, as the beach is calling and camping is in full-swing. Warm enough to for swimming but not yet deathly-hot, outside is the place to be in June. So what book could I possibly recommend for this month of outdoor bliss?
Why, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, of course!
There is more than one book in this series, but the first is the one I'll always remember. When the swimming is done, BBQ is over, and everyone is gathered around a flickering fire -- the only light for miles around -- nothing can beat reading out loud from the best of the best of scary campfire stories!
June may be sunny and bright, but when the lights go down we can all use a little shivery goodness.
July -- Explosive month of fireworks and hot dogs. We're getting into the swing of summer now, and it's time for everyone to put on our patriotic smiles and wave our star-spangled banners high (well, in America anyway).
Of course these days it's harder and harder to be proud of our country. Between oil spills and protests, bloated prisons and protests, and voter suppression and... protests, it seems we're imploding in an antagonizingly slow but sure fashion. (Added for 2022: this hasn't gotten better, as we all know!) Still, no matter what side of the political fence we're on, for the most part we all want to be proud of our country. After all, this is where we were born and like it or not, it's how we identify to the world.
Is there any book that can help us get back to the sense of patriotism we want to feel when the fireworks roar in the sky? I'm sure there are many, actually, but my personal recommendation is Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee.
If you haven't read this story, do it. Seriously. Technically it's a children's book (big surprise from me I know), but though it's set over forty years in the past, it tackles so many of the issues we still face today in the most optimistic way possible. I can't do this story justice by way of explaining to you just how beautifully it illustrates the true American dream, so I'm posting two excerpts here for you instead:
It was the day of the worms. That first almost-warm, after-the-rainy-night day in April, when you bolt from your house to find yourself in a world of worms. They were as numerous here in the East End as they had been in the West. The sidewalks, the streets. The very places where they didn't belong. Forlorn, marooned on concrete and asphalt, no place to burrow, April's orphans....
For the life of him, he couldn’t figure why these East Enders called themselves black. He kept looking and looking, and the colors he found were gingersnap and light fudge and dark fudge and acorn and butter rum and cinnamon and burnt orange. But never licorice, which, to him, was real black.
Between fire hydrants, orphans, baseball, bullying, corner stores, and racism, Maniac Magee couldn't be more American if it tried. But when you read about our country though the eyes of this bright, optimistic, hopeful boy, something of his outlook rubs off on you, and you can finally start to see the fireworks once more like you did as a child -- with a bit of a spark of what patriotism is really all about.
I always called August AAAAughust, because of how hot it gets. If February is the deep chill of winter, August is the molten coal-bath of summer. Most people are inside in August, not so much from weariness of summer as simple self-preservation.
Swimming is a must if one is outside -- or at the very least running through a sprinkler -- and nobody goes out the door without an armor-coat of super-strong sunscreen between their skin and the powerful rays of Solus. So what does one read in August, indoors while surrounded by fans and sipping iced tea?
The cool story of an even cooler girl, living in the hottest place around, of course!
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block is an outstanding story of a girl with a fascinating life in the city of Angels (that's Shangri-L.A. to you). Set in the 80's, the story follows Weetzie and her best friend Dirk, two punk rock young adults with some of the most interesting fictional personalities I have ever seen. Their world is a hyper-reality of strange cars, genie wishes, witch babies and 50's throwbacks.
Ahhh... Well, It's difficult to really explain this story, so I'll just say that you want to read it, and August is the best time to do so.
Trust me. ;-)
September! Just when we think we can't take any more heat, the weather is turning cool again. Huzzah!
Honestly, Autumn is my favorite time of year. It's crispy, everything smells like leaves and chimney smoke, and I get to dress in my hoodies and sweaters again. People are also reading once more as we sit in our chairs or couches, snuggling up at night with a warm cup of tea and maybe a furry friend at our feet.
But the hustle and bustle of everyday life is at its most meh in September as well, as we ruminate on past summer fun and worry over the coming excitement -- and stress -- of the holidays ahead. Stuck in the middle, September can be a real purgatory of the mundane...
Oh! Hi! Man, I need an exciting story to rev things up! How about you?
Enter Mr. Stephen King.
Awww yiiis. This man has written SO many amazing stories that normally it would be hard to choose one. In fact, I have chosen eight. That's right: when September blahs hit, nothing can quite cure them like the "Dark Tower" Series!
Even if you're not a fan of horror, I'd still recommend this series. Though there is obviously a horror element (it is Stephen King after all), the stories encompass so much more. Part western, part post-apocalypse, part dystopan, part sci-fi, and part fantasy, The "Dark Tower" series is a must for overcoming the September blahs. Just be sure to follow every twist and turn; it's easy to get lost in Mid-World...
And now we come to October, the month of spooks and hallows. I could try to stoke my literary ego and twist the month into something else so that my choice isn't predictable or cliche...
Am I kidding? My FAVORITE holiday is Halloween! My favorite colors are orange and black. My favorite art style is goth-innocence. I am NOT going to pass this chance up. My only real problem is choosing.
Ya know what? I'm gonna go all out with the one, the only, Bram Stoker, baby!
As the home of Halloween, October deserves the very best, and among the great horror novels of our time Dracula is the king. If you have only ever seen any of the millions of adaptations done to Stoker's classic since its publication in 1897, I implore you to read the original novel. You won't be disappointed.
As a runner-up (because I can't help myself with this), any of Anne Rice's wonderful vampire novels are also a great bet to chill you on those creepy October nights! (Though I'm partial to Memnoch the Devil.)
For those who don't know, I am Pagan. Celtic Pagan to be a bit more specific. What that means is that I honor the faeries as they are, which is a far cry from their image in most of American society. Wild, unpredictable, wise, and powerful, the faeries of the Tuatha Dé Danann are the literal embodiment of nature.
For me, November is the embodiment of them.
November: the month of power and peace. Of stormy days and calming nights. Of stark beauty and muted decay. Of light and dark, crisp leaves and smooth mud. The month when flora and fauna either goes to sleep or dies, depending on its strength. November is not benevolent, nor is it malevolent. It does what needs to be done to keep nature strong and beautiful. It preserves the way things are, for the way things will become. This describes faeries to a "T".
For this reason, I have chosen to veer a bit from my usual fiction picks and recommend a non-fiction work for November: Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee.
Many would disagree on my label of "non-fiction" for this work, I realize. But for me it is 100% true. Take the book out to the center of a wood in November and read it, then tell me if it wasn't the very best choice for this magikal month!
And now we come to December, the month that gave me this idea in the first place. I know the book and I know the reason, so let's get to it!
There's something mystical about Christmas, and for me that goes far deeper into history than the birth of Jesus. Yuletide has always been a time of mystery, magic, fire, and beauty, evoking feelings of peace, warmth, and comfort to those lucky enough to celebrate it in their own fashion. For me, only one book can evoke those same feelings even in the bright heat of June:
Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising
This story takes place during the Christmas season in an undefined time period somewhere between the 1940's and the 1970's. Old magik is undoubtedly a theme in the story, but moreso for me is the magic that Susan Cooper weaves into her Christmas scenes. Cooper evokes a strong sense of warmth, peace, and wonder with her caroling scenes especially, but also holiday comfort and familial love in the scenes where the hero -- young Will -- is at home with his family. Think the Weasleys Christmas at home, but with the ancient, Celtic magic of the Druids. Weaving true and ancient magic with the comfort of Christmas is the ultimate incantation to me -- strong enough, even, to commit me to a blog that has literally taken all day to write.
And now we have gone all the way around the year. I hope you enjoy these stories year-round in your own life, and please add your own to the comments!