With all but essential workers on lockdown, and our social lives on hold, the time seems ripe for a reading revolution. But this is no holiday; anxiety will skew what and how we read. Some will want to escape to another world where there’s no fear of contagion; others will seek out stories that echo our turbulent times. Others will find solace in nature, in extending our outdoor time through words on the page. Whatever your current inclinations, I hope I have something to tempt you, from my reading of around 140 novels a year. Most of these are reviewed on my blog: clicking on the title will take you there. And if none of these take your fancy, let me know through the comments and I’ll try to suggest something more to your taste.
Novels about confinement and pandemics
Fiction can help us process difficult experiences by engaging with stories which parallel our own. We can vicariously explore our emotions through discovering how the characters cope. We do this effortlessly, unconsciously, and – unlike our own predicament – if it gets too hairy, we can simply close the book.
It’s no surprise that sales have soared recently of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague (La Peste). More surprising, perhaps, is that at the end of last year I read two novels about the Black Death: did these authors know something the rest of us didn’t?
If you fear going stir crazy to staring at four walls, spare a thought for Oisín Fagan’s characters in Nobber, a darkly entertaining tale of pestilence, madness and land seizure. Debarred from leaving their windowless hovels, the townsfolk languish in darkness and stifling summer heat, along with their moribund relatives and putrefying dead.
A little more sober, perhaps, To Calais in Ordinary Time by James Meek is an impressive, if challenging, linguistic achievement, exploring power, belief, gender, love and misogyny set in cataclysmic times. Revisiting my review a few months on, I’m heartened by the thread of common humanity, as three English cultures, so separate they don’t even speak the same language, find a degree of mutual respect.
Not about sickness, but my go-to novel about confinement, The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader provides a fascinating insight into life in a mediaeval English village, with its feudal system on one hand and the power of the church on the other. Yet the novel seems highly contemporary in its themes of religiosity, obsession and interdependency.
While not physically locked in, the central character in Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, translated from the Italian by J Ockenden, is willingly estranged from society. It’s a a beautifully compassionate story of an old man gradually becoming estranged from himself. Whether due to dementia, psychosis or social isolation, the author perfectly encapsulates how his attempts to safeguard his shreds of sanity pitch him deeper into the muddled maelstrom of his mind.
Locked up, not alone, or even with family, but with fifty-seven other international hostages in an unnamed South American country, the characters in Ann Patchett’s multi-award-winning Bel Canto find a sense of community amid the fear and boredom. (No review for this as I read it before I started blogging but I urge you to read it if you haven’t already.)
For some who work in offices, lockdown might feel like freedom in contrast. That’s if we can believe the atmosphere evoked in The Room by Jonas Karlsson, translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith, a marvellous Kafkaesque fable about office politics, diversity and differing versions of reality.
Novels to escape into
Fiction can be a retreat from painful reality by transporting us to worlds different to our own. While we might not have an actual time machine, we can forget our woes when our minds travel to some hypothetical future or back into the past.
Classics can be comforting at such times, especially if we’ve read them before. But if you’re an Austen fan bemoaning the fact that she’ll never launch another bestseller, you might enjoy Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister. It begins as a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from a neglected point of view, rehabilitating not only dour Mary but scheming Charlotte Lucas, oleaginous Mr Collins and shadowy Aunt Gardiner. It then moves into its own as Mary is herself transformed into a convincing Austen heroine, both endearing to the reader and suitably flawed.
If Regency England still seems too recent, Lux by Elizabeth Cook takes us right back to New Testament times with – among other themes – a feminist reimagining of the story of Bathsheba, supposed seductress of the psalm-writer, King David.
Fast forward to the twentieth century for Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage. Light as a soufflé, and with touches of humour, it’s a moving tribute to the campaign for women’s suffrage with a credible portrait of a heroic woman whose loyalty to the wrong person ends up hurting herself and those who love her best.
For a zany read with laugh-out-loud humour, spend a few pleasant hours with Shona McMonagle, the feisty time-travelling heroine of Olga Wojitas’ debut, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar, when she’s invited by the 200-year-old founder of her alma mater to serve as a goodwill ambassador.
I couldn’t find many futuristic novels that aren’t also dystopian, which might not be the best form of escape, but Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut is a marvellously quirky exception. While some novels suffer from the weight of too many stories, Spaceman of Bohemia manages to be much bigger than the sum of its many parts: sci-fi adventure; love story; sociopolitical history of the Czech Republic and homage to Prague; psychodrama of how the actions of one generation shape the next; a meditation on identity, adaption to loss, and what makes us human.
The nature cure
There’s some evidence that engaging with nature can be therapeutic, but that’s small consolation for anyone with no green space accessible at a short distance from home. Fortunately, it seems imagined scenes and scenarios can also be beneficial and we can wander literary landscapes free from social distancing demands. While many will prefer to facilitate vicarious visits through non-fiction if, like me, you’re a fiction freak, there are plenty of places to find your nature fix. But be warned, if there are people present they won’t all smell of roses: the last in my list is probably the most upbeat!
If you like your wild places wild, I strongly recommend Polly Clark’s Tiger in which three disparate characters are united by their respect for the Siberian tiger and, eventually, a particular female who patrols a territory of 500 square miles in one of the harshest environments on earth.
An East Anglian farm in summer 1933, might seem tame by comparison and there are some lovely descriptions of rural life in nature writer Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley. But we know from the opening pages that something dreadful is to happen in this sympathetic portrayal of a mind unravelling in the context of a community that is likewise losing its way.
East Anglia is a little too flat for my liking, so let’s lace up our walking boots and head to the Italian Alps. The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, is a lovely lyrical coming-of-age story about mountains, masculinity and family relationships with unbridgeable gaps.
If you want less sky, join me in the Canadian forest with Sarah Leipciger, author of The Mountain Can Wait, a poignant tale of family and fatherhood and the conflicts between work and home. At the opposite end of the Americas, Nothing but Dust by Sandrine Collette, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, is a startlingly honest account of the harshness of life on the Patagonian steppe and the impact of a mother’s inability to love either herself or her sons.
At this time of year, I’m up with the sun most mornings and can catch the ornithological chorus outside my door. If that’s your kind of thing, you might enjoy Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer, translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett. It’s a heart-warming – but unsentimental – novel about an inspiring woman: English eccentric, lay scientist, talented musician and ornithologist with the courage to live life on her own terms.
Ebooks are probably safer at the moment, but we do have some choice in how we get hold of them, as we do for print.
Your local bookshop might be closed but, if you want it to survive the crisis, do check whether they’re open to email orders which they’ll deliver themselves or send through the mail. Alternatively, there are online retailers who will donate a portion of their profits to your nominated shop: Hive in the UK and Indiebound in the US (I’m not sure if the latter actually sells books – let me know!)
Some of these also supply ebooks, as do small independent publishers. Do support them if you can!
Let’s get social!
Have you read any of these novels? Have I tempted you to try something new? Can you suggest any other books to help us face, flee or forget the pandemic?
Do you know of any initiatives to support independent bookshops and small presses at the moment? If so, spread the word below!
If you want some advice on finding a novel on a particular theme or in a specific location, just ask. If I can’t help you, someone else probably can.
This post comes from Rough Writer Anne Goodwin
Anne Goodwin posts about reading and writing on her blog Annecdotal, with around ten novel reviews a month. A former clinical psychologist, she’s also the author of two novels and a short story collection with small independent press Inspired Quill.
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Hi, Anne. Might give the dystopia stuff a miss at the moment but a great resource for expanding our reading possibilities. Don’t know about the UK, but in Australia we can access library books online for free via the Overdrive App, Libby. https://www.overdrive.com/apps/libby/
Thanks for adding that about library books, Doug. Yes, we can borrow ebooks through the libraries in the UK also. Although I’m not aware of any central system for this.
The dystopian novel we’re living in the UK has taken an interesting plot twist overnight – I can see why readers might shy away from in fiction.
I couldn’t read at all initially, as everything went into meltdown… But now I’m getting there. I’m definitely one who prefers escapism, orca change to hack through this tbr pile!
Thanks for reading my post, Ritu. Yes, it’s so hard to concentrate when we’re all feeling panicky I hope you can find plenty of escapist reads on your TBR pile..
They tend to be my go to… so I shall be working my way through! Stay safe!
Rather sadly i seem to have defaulted to detective fiction and fantasy though having seen the film recently i reread Great Expectations. Oh and a classic of sporting literature, a 1930s delight by Neville Cardus easily the best cricket writer ever…
Not sad at all, Geoff, detective fiction keeps your mind engaged without taking itself too seriously. And I hope your vicarious cricket is suitably satisfying.
the cricket writing is better than I could have imagined; for the first time I begin to understand why the greatest batsman ever was such – Cardus really brings him alive in ways countless others have failed.
Thanks, Anne. I’d rather something a little lighter at the moment, a little less pandemic and dystopian than you suggest. I have just begun listening to Bel Canto (on a previous recommendation by you) and am enjoying it so far but wonder if, now that I know a little more about it, I may have been better to go with the Other Bennet Sister. I’ll let you know.
Some of our local independent bookstores here in Brisbane will deliver orders to their area and many are hosting online activities, I think. I’m thrilled to see many authors, particularly children’s authors, turning to YouTube to do free online story readings. What a great idea – great for the audience. Great for promotions too.
Bel Canto definitely isn’t light but it does show the human side of a dreadful situation. I hope you don’t regret picking it up. Mary Bennett could come next.
A lot of booksellers have been very creative with online events but I haven’t got round to showing up to any just yet. Those extras from their favourite authors must be great for the kids. So sad for them to be shut up Indoors.
I’m enjoying Bel Canto so far. I’m finding it’s good to have my mind occupied – means it’s not meandering where it shouldn’t. 🙂
I think it’s difficult timing for everyone. You in the north with your beautiful spring weather and us here in the south with our glorious autumns. Oh well, let’s hope we live to enjoy another one. 🙂
Times like this I tend to go to the escapism of fantasy (or medieval poetry as I am at the moment). The last thing I want to do is read about other pandemics or similar, things are rather grim at the moment as it is…
I’ve read very little fantasy but what I’m wondering is don’t they also sometimes take you to some dark places? I suppose with quest novels as the expectation of the pot of gold at the end whereas we don’t know how we’re going to come out of this.
Great list! I’m going to put some of these on my own list – nothing like reading in these times!
Glad you found something of interest. Let me know if they meet your expectations.
One of the many good things in life I have re-discovered of late is my home library. With more time to read, and so many author choices, where do I begin?
Women Writing the West Shelf: Carmen Peone, Susie Drougas, Eileen Mayer Theil, and Milana Marseich.
Alberta Authors Shelf: Lee McLean, Joy Norstom, Audrey J. Whitson, Shane Kroetsch, and Wendy Dudley.
Re-Read Shelf: Sean Prentiss, D. Avery, M.C. Beaton, The Congress of Rough Writers, Kate Milford, Geoff Le Pard
The Comfort Zone Shelf: Isabel Edwards (Ruffles on my Longjohns), Chico Choate (Unfriendly Neighbours), Margaret Hanna (Our Bull’s Loose in Town), and C. M. (Charlie) Russell (Regards to the Bunch).
Then there is the Gardening Shelf, The Quilting Shelf, The Nature Shelf…
Wow, Ann, that’s quite a list! Not only have I not read any of these authors apart from Geoff and D, I haven’t heard of them.
Seems a great way of organising your shelves so you can pick and choose according to your mood. Enjoy your reading through the lockdown.
Yeah, not just the shelves but those stacks that somehow mushroomed around the house. I started by finishing books that got set down, Annie Proulx’s short stories (Close Range) and Anne Goodwin’s short stories (Becoming Someone- I hadn’t finished the set of lighter ones at the end!) and Can Xue’s Dialogues in Paradise. An old Vermonter’s recollections of his grandfather’s stories and life. A couple of YA books that were around. Now I’m looking at the stacks instead of using them as end tables and chose a rather thick one, a biography of Walt Whitman, even as I continue to savor Landmarks. Because I’m that slow/distracted/ busy. I also pick at poetry collections too, easy bed time reading. As things settle in to more of a routine I look forward to maybe being a better reader, that is starting and finishing in a smaller time frame, novels or biographies instead of books I can get away with reading piecemeal.
This has not been the great readathon for me that it has for others but SQUIRREL!
I suppose we tend to think there’s a right way to read, as in progressing smoothly from start to finish, but we all need to read in a way that works for us personally at a particular time. Especially in this lockdown period we should indulge ourselves and not let reading become another pressure. But I love that your stacks are no longer only end tables – although of course that’s handy for your glass of beer – and of course thanks and congratulations for reaching the cheerier stories at the end of Becoming Someone.
“Ya know, Pal, just as well we didn’t hire this ‘un. Seems ta have a readin’ problem!”
“Yep, Kid. Must surely git in the way a her drinkin’.”
“Yep. Pal? Who’s Shirley?”
Thanks, friends, you’re right that I can get carried away in my reading recommendations. But I’d happily read TO you while you sweeping up etc – or even while you’re drinking. Here’s one of my more upbeat stories just for you
I have a downloaded book about a little girl working with ghosts and a bedside book of dragons and children who have ‘talents’… I also like fun detective books from pretty much any of the Kellerman’s and also the western police of Tony Hillerman. Other what I call fun murder mysteries where the crime gets solved by the main character who unexpectedly gets tossed in the thicket of it.
Thanks for an informative post 🙂
Yes, Jules! Tony Hillerman is my favorite escape to the southwestern desert author! I’m trying to remember the title of the book where people on the reservation start dying of the Black Plague (which still exists on flea-infested prairie dogs of the SW)…
…The First Eagle! I had to look it up. That would be a good one to read. Do you have a Kindle?
Mysteries are fun to read in times of troubles because they give the mind a solvable puzzle.
I have some kind of e-reader that sits unused. As I prefer books. But I have a book down-loaded on my PC from a friend.
I believe I read most of the Hillerman books. But I think they would be fun to read again – though I think I sent all of the ones I did read to you! Except for the one you sent me 🙂 Which I also read. If you haven’t read it… (I don’t remember the title right now…I think it was by Hillerman’s daughter, Anne. I can send it back you way if you’d like…if I can find it.)
I enjoyed re-reading Hillerman, but I’ve not gotten to his daughter’s books yet. Hold on to that one until after I graduate next year! <3
I did think I ought to have included some desert landscapes in my nature section but the ones that came to mind weren’t particularly upbeat. I’ve visited some beautiful deserts but they’re so different from the nature of my childhood. So I’m wondering whether a desert landscape is uplifting view in the way that green and slate-strewn slopes are for me.
Looks like you’ve got some fun reading ahead of you, Jules. Thanks for sharing.
Great wrangling of categories and books for reading during lockdown, Anne. Several, that you mention, I have on hand in my Kindle. I just downloaded four textbooks last night so my reading is more on craft this term. But I’m leaning toward nature. I have a manuscript to finish reading this week and then I’m going to read Overstory by Richard Powers which features trees at the core of the story entwined with humanity.
As for further reading resources, in the US we can purchase print or audiobooks from the link you shared. Here’s another that is similar: https://bookshop.org/
I’m into research mode as my biggest excitement during lockdown. If there are other history nerds out there, check out these academic and historical resources available for free during the COVID-19 crisis: https://about.muse.jhu.edu/resources/freeresourcescovid19/
Also, if anyone has a Kindle, we can share books!
Thanks for these additions, Charli, and for inviting me to take over your blog for a day. (A weird reversal responding to your comment in grey – I feel as if I ought to be doing a happy dance in the brown box. But the scariest thing is that it looks as if I have the power to edit others’ comments? I’m curious but have avoided playing around with that for fear of inadvertently mangling someone’s words.)
Overstory has been on my radar but I’m rather intimidated by the length. Although I did begin a hefty tome last night, but it’s by an author I have read before.
Seems you’ve got plenty to keep you busy through the lockdown with reading for your course and for leisure. That’s great too about the academic resources being made more widely available right now. I’m sure they’d be stuff that there would interest me but I actually feel overwhelmed with the amount of stuff currently on offer.
(Pity they don’t also supply flour!)
Thank you for sharing. Reading is a wonderful pasttime ♥️
It is indeed, Natalie. Thanks for reading my post and hope you’ve got plenty of books to enjoy through the lockdown.
Lots of great suggestions here. It’s rare that I come across a list of recommendations where I don’t know any of the books. This would be that list! I will likely check out several of these, but not now. Reading doesn’t seem to soothe right now for me. Thanks for putting this together!
Thanks, Lisa, hope you find your reading mojo again soon.
Thank you Anne for all the suggestions. At the Carrot Ranch Vermont Retreat last year we met Sean Prentiss. His book “Finding Abbey” is a wonderful SW nature book and the story is not just about Sean finding Abbey’s grave but finding a sense of home for himself. I highly recommend it.
I had made a list of some of your female story-based books a while back and could find none of them in my local library. I’m wondering if books tend to be more recognized in their own country.
My husband is working full time, but at home, during this lockdown and my days have changed very little, except I get to interrupt him regularly with this comment or that and I’m making more complete meals, no popcorn for lunch. Thus, my reading time has not increased. I have been writing a bit more.
I’m glad to know where to find these recommendations whenever time allows.
Thanks, Susan, I think someone else mentioned Sean Prentiss. I’m glad the retreat helped to discover another book to enjoy.
Thanks for following up my previously recommended books but sorry you couldn’t find them in your local library. I do get most of my books from UK publishers but the authors are often from other countries, especially the US. You could always ask your library to order in a book you fancy – other readers might enjoy it too but I know budgets are limited.
Great to hear you’re managing to get more writing done. And hope your husband appreciates those home-cooked lunches!
Great post – reader’s delight!
Science fiction remains my North Star in reading – thru thick and thin!
And I’m currently reading a sci fi novel about:
!!! mysterious nano-tech virus with biological and non-biological codes – the Melding Plague!!!
Alastair Reynolds – Chasm City (2001).
2002 British Science Fiction Association award.
themes of identity, memory. Tanner Mirabel, a security expert is in Chasm City in search of the killer of his former client’s wife. He finds Chasm City, once part of the most advanced civilization in human history, is now a slum. The consequence of a mysterious nanotech virus with biological and nonbiological codes – the Melding Plague.
Tanner is infected by the virus and experiences flashbacks from the life of Sky Haussmann, founder of human settlement on the planet Sky’s Edge.
Thanks Anne, and Charli!
Thanks for sharing, Saifun. I’m glad you weren’t put off picking up a plague. Sounds like a great adventure story to get your teeth into. I hope it continues to distract and entertain in the precautions you need.
[…] social activities still out of bounds, are you running out of things to read? Following on from my guest post in April on facing, fleeing or forgetting the virus through fiction, I have a few more recommendations for […]