Rather to my surprise, people have been asking me to recommend books for lockdown reading. Virtual strangers, some of them. I suppose they think a writer reads more than other people. Well, to keep abreast of the competition, if nothing else.
Now, I like talking about books. And I am congenitally incapable of ignoring a request for help.
Finding a story that somebody else might like, especially someone I barely know (not to mention that someone’s son, daughter or grandchild) is hard. To be honest, it has left me with eyeballs swishing about, looking for the escape hatch.
So far I’ve blundered through, hauling up titles from the cellarage pretty much at random. Do people want books they can read together? Or are they trying to read to block out the effects of too much togetherness?
With a very uncertain Christmas coming, I thought I’d try to be a bit more disciplined.
New Lockdown Bookworms?
The Reading Agency has been trying to persuade us to read more for years. They tell us that in England 31% of adults don’t read in their free time. This rises to 46% for people aged 16-24. Now, that really scared me. It was only reading that got me through the horrors of adolescence.
According to Nielsen, provider of ISBNs and source of much book research, two fifths of adults are reading more during lockdown. The reasons they give include more time to read and a desire to escape from the coronavirus crisis. Unsurprisingly, they seem to have turned against dystopian fiction (often brutal and/or gloomy) towards crime and thrillers and popular fiction.
I’m not a great believer in age-appropriate reading, so I’ve included at least one book advertised as “for children”. So sue me.
Reading in Lockdown Because of Loneliness?
Of the many reasons to have more time for reading, two are painful and can be a frightening source of stress: loneliness and anxiety, especially about losing your job. A lot of under 24s in the latter category, I suspect.
I’ve certainly escaped into books to alleviate both in the past.
For loneliness, I recommend fiction you can walk around in. The Birdwatcher in my life describes this as where the writer leaves you room to supply your own gloss to the characters and maybe, even, the action. These books are often long, with a wide cast of characters and cover a number of years.
Dickens does it for me, though I know people who call him “claustrophobic”. Try Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield, if you’re cautious. They have great stories, cracking villains and a great resolution where the good end happily. They’re also completely absorbing – I know at least one person who regularly rewrote a seduction scene in Nick Nick.
The big continuous chronicles work too – Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna series, though both are out of fashion now. Harry Potter, of course, if you’re OK with magic. The Lord of the Rings, if you’re OK with having your heart wrung.
And there are the massive single titles too: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Both will take you into a completely other world and hold you there. (Luminaries is a horribly slow start, but by golly it picks up once you get out of the Gentlemen’s Club.) But both are full of family tensions and impossible situations – with just a touch of the supernatural and Chinese gold miners in Luminaries – that anyone can relate to.
Reading in Lockdown Because of Anxiety?
For anxiety, I turn to PG Wodehouse. He reads very well aloud, too, if you’re sharing your house and even your anxieties.
A classic whodunnit is good, too. I think it was P D James who said that crime fiction is about the restoration of justice. I’m a great fan of her An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.
My comfort reading shelf also has favourite detective series: Lesley Cookman’s Libby Serjeant, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Ellis Peters’ Cadfael, as well as her less well known Inspector George Felse.
I think The House of Green Turf might just be my favourite detective novel of all time. The hero is just fabulous. And the moment he falls in love and knows it’s hopeless… wish I could write like that.
Another thing that I find deeply comforting is a story in which characters turn a place into home. The Victorian Children of the New Forest has a marvellous account of the aristocratic children in hiding settling down in the Forest Ranger’s simple cottage. When Sarah is stripped of her privileges in A Little Princess she uses her imagination to make her attic bearable – and then, when it is transformed for real, you actually feel the fire and taste to good things for tea! In Rose Daughter, which I talk about below, one of the greatest pleasures is the impoverished family making themselves at home in the new cottage.
Step away from the Time of Lockdown?
There is nothing like a step into another time to give you a real shift in perspective. One of my favourites is The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe. I read it as a child but she always insisted that her books were for everyone. Indeed, there’s a fabulous article in The Guardian about Sutcliffe and the origins of The Eagle by Charlotte Higgins, who clearly feels the same. (As do I.)
This is based on the real mystery of what happened to the Ninth Legion, which disappears from history, having been quartered in York. The hero, Marcus, is the son of one of the missing officers, now in York himself, wounded and feeling useless. (Sound familiar?) He goes on the most tremendous adventure, seeking the missing legion north of the border.
This is a book about courage and sorrow and loss – and wonderful, inspiring friendship, found in the most unlikely places. Will lift your heart.
Another personal pleasure is both history and detective fiction in one, Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. Her heroine Adelia Aguilar comes to England, at the behest of Henry II, from the crusaders’ hospital in Syracuse where medical science is leaping forward. Anatomist Adelia uses her skills to identify murders and murderers – and also has to learn from King Henry about the delicate balance between church and state when it comes to matters of law. An absolutely gripping read, the first of a series starring Adelia.
I can’t ignore that most popular of Escape Pod Periods, the Regency, and this is a personal favourite too. By Libertà’s Joanna Maitland, His Cavalry Lady is set in 1814, when the Prince Regent was masterminding major events to celebrate the centenary of the Hanoverian dynasty and Europe thought Napoleon was defeated and was arguing over the division of the spoils.
In this uneasy world our cool, fabulous hero is a spy, as well as a Duke. And our heroine is, if possible, even more elusive – and based on a real person. Their encounters are full of suspense and the world of London balls and visiting royals is both elegant and utterly believable. And it, too, is the first of a series, in this case The Aikenhead Honours.
NB Very sorry, I cut this whole section on historicals inadvertently while I was trying to get pictures and live links to work. Didn’t check until much too late. So here it is, at last.
Entertainment, I think, requires something with a bit of pace to it and probably a good laugh or two along the way. P G Wodehouse, of course, qualifies. So does the blessed Terry Pratchett, who most certainly took PGW’s implicit correspondence course. Pratchett, of course, comes with clear-thinking satire and is not always as joyous as The Master.
OK, this is where I include people who are busier during lockdown than normal. I’m thinking particularly of parents who have to try to home school children because of self-isolation requirements, while also working for home. One solution could be short stories, as in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere.
Another could be reading aloud with those children. Pratchett has a fabulous trilogy, starting with Johnny and the Dead one of those books labelled “for children” which an adult like me can read with absolutely no under-age alibi at all. Bit of history, bit of schoolboy activism, bit of dysfunctional family, lot of mates, masses of fun with stuff to think about, too.
Longer and denser is Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter, which I’ve been re-reading recently. It’s her second go at retelling Beauty and the Beast. And it’s blissful. Beauty’s sisters, bullies in prosperity, turn into truly good eggs under adversity. Magic sense of magic is a source of equal threat and protection, dreaded confrontation and somehow the best possible opportunity to test yourself. Hopeful and deeply comforting.
Reading in Lockdown for Unexpected Delight
I’ve also read with much pleasure a new novel by Jonathan Coe, Mr Wilder and Me. The narrator looks back on encounters with legendary Billy Wilder, labouring over his penultimate film. The main interest for me was Wilder and his brilliant collaborator, writer Iz Diamond, whose highest expression of enthusiasm is “Why not?”
The narrator is a perceptive, much younger woman, who becomes their “little Greek translator” . What we see of her life is intriguingly woven around her intense encounters with Wilder’s world. Powerful stuff – the research is amazing – and beautifully told. Ultimately hopeful too.
Reading in Lockdown: Pure Romance
A question on facebook reminded me of a delightful mature romance that has kept its place on my bookshelf since I first read it. Some lovely characters and a thoroughly believable impossible situation which you can’t imagine ever being resolved. Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray is an absolute delight.
And finally, one of my all time favourite novels from Mills and Boon. Published in 1985 it is on my Keeper Shelf and likely to stay there.
The prickly, grumpy, loving heroine is not only deeply believable but all too recognisable in myself and some of my best friends. The hero is, well, school of Mel Gibson before he went peculiar, Hugh Jackman or David Wenham in his Diver Dan incarnation. (Be still my beating heart. Why did no one ever bring fabulous, sweet, funny, truthful Sea Change to UK TV?!)
The story is classic. Woman out of her comfort zone and fighting back, expecting to be dumped at any moment. Theseus and Ariadne. Eros and Psyche. The film world, just touched on, is teeth-achingly shallow. Every character makes mistakes and no one is wholly in the right. And it’s beautifully written. Happy sigh. The Driftwood Dragon by Ann Charlton.
So what would you recommend as Lockdown Reading, either to a new Bookworm or an old lag?