I think there’s quite a lot of us that need something to occupy our minds from the never-ending anxiety-enducing doom and gloom from the news. There’s also going to be a lot of us stuck at home for quite a long time, without anything to do. I’ve been trying to think of something productive to do, or share, and as it would turn out, I seem to have very few useful skills.
However, there is one thing I know lots about, and I’m more than happy to chat about constantly… books.
In order to try and stop myself from checking Twitter, the News, Facebook, and other even less reliable sources for constant coronavirus updates, I have pulled together my list of books which help me escape a little, when the world seems terribly dreary.
I don’t know if anyone else is struggling a bit with concentration, but I know I certainly am, so I’ve chosen books that I find ‘easy’ to read. (Which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easy books – but more that they’re easy to absorb yourself into. Some are, of course, cosy comfort reads.).
I’m babbling, so, with no further ado, and trying not to repeat myself too much… here goes!
A fairly broad category. I keep saying that I’m not particularly into fantasy, but then seem to read quite a lot of it.
Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials
I’ve blogged before about how much I love the His Dark Materials Trilogy, so I’ll try to keep this relatively brief. For me, the world that Pullman has created is the most vivid and cleverly constructed that I’ve ever read. I was completely absorbed in it, and if you’ve never read it before, you’re in for a treat.
There’s an excellent audiobook dramatisation too, which I’d thoroughly recommend. The books can be more challenging – I quite like to alternative between the audiobook and the novel.
Patrick Ness: Chaos Walking Trilogy
In this dystopian world, everyone can hear each other’s thoughts. When Todd is forced to flee Prentisstown, his world is turned completely upside down…
I came across Patrick Ness’ work when I was doing some work experience with his publisher. I was gripped – I read The Knife of Never Letting Go on the train on my commute, and on at least one occasion started sobbing. It’s brilliant, gritty, and captivating. (Though possibly not the best to read if you’re actually feeling very anxious).
Terry Pratchett: Discworld
I’d recommend anything from Terry Pratchet’s Discworld. They’re just so deliciously silly. Mort, Thief of Time, The Truth and Moving Pictures are some of my favourites, but I don’t think I’ve yet been disappointed by anything from Pratchett that I’ve read.
The abridged versions read by Tony Robinson are an excellent option, if audio is more your thing.
Good Omens: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
In Good Omens, an angel and a demon team up to try and save the world from the apocalypse. Great, fantastic. Except… they’ve lost the Antichrist. Well, he’s bound to turn up eventually, isn’t he?
I enjoyed the TV series with David Tennant and Michael Sheen, but you really can’t beat the book. Some of the word play gets lost a little when it’s put on screen. So, if you’re starting to feel like the world really might be ending – this’ll cheer you right up.
Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
It starts with Earth being blown up to make way for a hyperspace bypass, and gets increasingly more mad from then on – via Vogon poetry, two headed aliens and the restaurant at the end of the universe, to name but a few. Reassuringly, the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy comes with the words ‘Don’t Panic’ in large, friendly letters on the front cover. Something all of us could do with at the moment.
The novel format of Hitchhikers, I believe, came after the BBC Radio Play. Both are excellent, but if, like me, you’ve got a shortened coronavirus-induced attention span, I’d recommend getting a hold of the radio version first. It’s technically Sci-Fi, but it’s definitely comedy first.
The Comic Novel
Comic novels are my absolute favourite type of novel and they make up about 90% of what I read at any given moment. They are also absolutely perfect for if you’re stuck inside and what to be cheered up. Luckily for us bookworms, there are an awful lot of good ones about.
P.G. Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters
Bertie Wooster is a well-to-do English…well, idiot, who is constantly getting into scrapes that his man, Jeeves, has to extract him from. Whether it’s being henpicked by his fearsome aunts (Agatha, the one who eats broken bottles for breakfast, or Dahlia, a slightly less frightening proposition); finding himself engaged to females against his will; or trying to outwit Steggles to win big on the Great Sermon Handicap, Jeeves never lets his man down. It’s hard to capture the brilliance and madness of the PG Wodehouse novels in a few lines, so I’d simply say read them! They’re not long and the characters are great.
I’d actually recommend any of the Jeeves and Wooster novels, I did name my cats after their main characters after all. (Bertie and Jeeves say hello, and are wondering why they’re not the main focus of this blog. It’s only a matter of time, if I’m honest). I think Right Ho, Jeeves is a fantastic introduction if you’ve not read any of PG Wodehouse’s books before, but The Code of the Woosters is probably my absolute favourite. The Wodehousian metaphor is a thing of beauty. Do read.
Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim
One of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Lucky Jim follows the hapless Jim Dixon, a lecturer who has not made a good first impression on his faculty. His career is at the mercy of the officious Professor Welch, and the more he tries to impress., the worse the situation he gets himself in. It’s a farce in novel form.
Lucky Jim has been known to make me howl with laughter on more than one occasion. In particular, the description of a hangover (we’ve all been there), and a passage about a bus journey. Pure silliness. Best enjoyed with a warm cup of tea.
Evelyn Waugh: Scoop
If you want to be reminded of a time when you could leave your house and travel – Scoop might be just the ticket! After a case of mistaken identity, William Boot, a completely inexperienced journalist, is sent to be the foreign correspondent at the Ishmaelia Civil War. Chaos ensues.
Sharp, biting, funny. It’s a great read – To a point, Lord Cooper.
Nancy Mitford: Wigs on the Green
Anything by Nancy Mitford is worth reading – Wigs on the Green is the one I know best because I wrote a chunk of dissertation on it. It was also out of print for a number of years due to its content (Nancy’s sisters, Unity and Diana were furious at the way she poked fun at Diana’s husband, Oswald Mosley) – which to my mind is a blooming good reason to read it.
Eugenia Malmains is one of the richest gals in England, mad as a box of frogs and an ardent supporter of Captain Jack and the Union Jackshirts. Noel and Jasper are in search of a rich heiress to save them the bother of working.
When they meet – the scene is set for farce…
My absolute weakness. I love a good romance story. Preferably one which is funny too. I won’t hear anyone tell me that they’re not good enough to be included on lists. I am thoroughly convinced that there is not much that a nice romance novel can’t solve (temporarily at least).
I’m going to recommend three books by Sarah Mason, because she is brilliant. They are all witty, have characters you actually care about, and are really well written. There are lines in all of them which have had me laughing out loud.
The Party Season: When Isabel Serranti, party planner extraordinaire, is asked to help plan a charity ball at the Monkwell country estate, she has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she grew up near there, and loves most of the members of the eccentric Monkwell family. On the other, Simon Monkwell, the oldest son, is her best friend turned bully and she never wants to see or hear of him again. But, determined to put the past behind her, Izzy decides to go for it, and it’s not long before she remembers why she loved the Monkwell estate so much.
Playing James: Holly Colshannon’s career as a journalist hasn’t exactly, er, hit its peak yet. So, when she is made the Crime Correspondent – the poisoned chalice of the Bristol Gazette, she’s determined to make the best of it. A fortunately timed conversation with the new Police PR officer, leads to Holly shadowing a detective for a new diary column. There are only a couple of downsides. For starters, Holly is exceptionally accident prone, and then there’s Detective James Sabine’s immense displeasure at having to take her around with him.
High Society: Clemmie Colshannon (sister to Holly), doesn’t really know where her life is going, when she ends up back at the family home. Luckily, there’s never a dull moment at the Colshannon residence – which can be the only explanation for how she gets embroiled in helping/hindering Holly solve the mystery of the disappearance of her fellow journalist, Emma. All is not as it seems…
Liz Young: Asking for Trouble
When Sophy dreams up an imaginary boyfriend to get her mother off her back, she thinks she’ll have plenty of time to dump him before he is summoned to meet the family. That is until she receives an invite to her sister’s wedding, and a firm insistence that he also attends. She does what any rational woman would do in her situation – and hires an escort. What harm could it possibly do?
Don’t be put off by the terrible film they made, vaguely based on this, called The Wedding Date. Asking for trouble is funny, emotional, and just plain brilliant.
Melissa Nathan: Persuading Annie; The Waitress; The Learning Curve; Acting Up; The Nanny.
I’ve really enjoyed anything I’ve read by Melissa Nathan. Smart, contemporary books – yes they’re romantic, but they also have enough plot that it doesn’t feel like the women protagonists are helpless until they find a man to sort them out. Another author I discovered thanks to my love of charity bookshops, but I’m about to place orders to fill up the gaps because these are just so good!
For real cosy country feels, I’d recommend anything by Jill Mansell, or the earlier books by Katie Fforde. (I don’t know why, but I’m just not enjoying her more recent ones half so much). My rule of thumb -prior to coronavirus – was that if the copy you found in the charity shop was well thumbed, it was probably a good bet. It’s served me well so far.
Kaye Umansky: Pongwiffy
Pongwiffy – a witch of very dirty habits – always seems to be getting into scraps that her beloved familiar (Hugo, the hamster) has to dig her out of. And there’s normally some goblins lurking about to cause trouble, and some meddling wizards who think they’re better than everyone else…
I may be approaching 30, but I will not make any excuses for the fact that I still have a soft spot for the books I loved as a child. I still find Pongwiffy hilarious, so if you want something that slips down as easily and as comfortingly as a warm cup of tea, I really can’t recommend this highly enough.
Diana Wynne Jones: The Chrestomanci Series
This is another series which is fantastic on Audiobook (and is indeed where I first discovered it!). A Charmed Life is book one, and a fantastic introduction to the Chrestomanci world of sorcerers, witches and other magical beings. They’re both gently written and exciting at the same time. There’s a lovely wit about them – and absolute hardingers of characters too.
Roald Dahl: To be quite honest anything
I don’t think I need to explain this one, do I?
I know they’re dreadful, but I also love them. Sue me. I really wanted to be in this club when I was younger. They all had cool names, like Claudia, Stacey, Kristy and Mary Anne. I think these were the first books that I read where I was aware it wasn’t set in England and America just seemed fantastically exotic. Those were the days.
Add a pinch of Jacqueline Wilson, Enid Blyton and, well JK Rowling, and you’ll have a lot of my childhood covered.
That should be enough to keep you occupied for a while! Luckily for us, lots of independent bookstores are still delivering – so I’d definitely recommend seeing if you can get your next book from there. Failing that, e-books are a blessing for when you have a sudden insatiable need to re-read a book from your past RIGHT NOW.
I’ve still got plenty more I can say about books so … I may follow up this with more recommendations or witterings. It’s hard to tell what this actually comes under. Hey ho.
If anyone has any recommendations for me, any cosy classics you love – do let me know! Also recommendations for independent book stores – please send me any links you have and I’ll gladly add them here.
In the meantime – stay safe, and at home. We’ll get through this, eventually.