Readers, this is the moment we have been training for. Aspiring readers, this could be your reading equivalent of Couch to 5k. With COVID-19 keeping us indoors and removing many of our usual entertainment options, books are calling to us. Some of us can dash to our local bookshop and stock up. We can still (for now) support bookshops via delivery of lovely paper books that arrive and make us feel like it’s our birthday. We can summon books virtually in various ways. We can virtuously read our existing TBR (to-be-read) piles. Either way, reading enables us to travel mentally when we’re physically grounded.
But what to choose? What book calls to you in a coronavirus age? Dear reader, I have some suggestions in 4 categories: feel-good delights; pandemic dystopias; dystopias that make you think that at least the moon isn’t crashing into the earth; and a some out of this world books to just escape the whole planet.
For those of us who have heard quite enough about illness and anxieties and doom and fancy a happy escape:
Sourdough by Robin Sloan is delightful. This is a quirky and unusual tale of a Silicon Valley woman who comes into possession of a culture to make sourdough bread of a special kind that transforms her life. It’s a tiny bit magic realism-ish. It’s just really unusual and (I was then compelled to read Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore and its sequel Ajax Penumbra by the same author, and I adored them too.)
The Rosie Project (and its two sequels) by Graeme Simsion is so charming and engaging. It’s about a male professor of genetics who is brilliant with objective matters but struggles to make emotional connections. He tries to bring the two together with results that are funny, interesting and compelling. The books are about how he changes and grows. The characters are an absolute delight.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer is about a mediocre writer who, upon being invited to his his ex-boyfriend’s wedding, decides that rather than accept or reject the invitation he will simply be unavailable due to accepting all the random author random invitations around the world that pop into his inbox. Lovely book.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson was published in 1938 and it’s about a downtrodden governess who finds herself suddenly having a very unexpected day. (If this is your sort of thing, can I also suggest Mrs Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico – and that one, which is also delightful, has 3 sequels).
Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuisto is my current go-to happy escape book, and in fact that’s what it was written for: after the last US elections; the author says she decided to jump into a fantasy land where a very liberal female president found herself in the White House, complete with gay son (who has a love-hate relationship with one of the royal princes from the UK). This book gives every impression of preparing you for a trashy book, but it’s really, surprisingly, good. The writing is sharp and the plot compelling. It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s interesting, and it’s heartwarming. I loved this. Suspend disbelief and go for it.
Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce is set in WWII London and is the epitome of charming, about a woman with a career and the decisions she makes, and the impact of the war on normal life in London. It’s also very funny.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green is absolutely remarkable. It’s about a young woman who encounters a potential alien sculpture, vlogs about it, and becomes social media-famous. The book is about that fame and its impact. It’s also about the potential alien sculpture. And the main character is interesting. This is a fast, easy read of the type you’ll skip a meal to finish. Intriguingly it’s by the brother of famous young adult writer John Green.
To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer is really a book for young teenagers – but it’s also a lovely read for adults. Two girls find out their fathers are dating and are horrified when they’re sent to the same summer camp to make friends. The whole thing is written in letter form and it’s lovely and interesting and funny and quirky.
In at the Deep End by Kate Davies is at the other end of the spectrum. The main descriptor I can think of is ‘a romp’. A young woman in London, leaving a dull relationship with a man, reinvents herself as a lesbian and has a passionate affair that is both crazy and relatable. It’s sexy, it’s interesting, it’s really properly laugh-out-loud funny. Reviews talk of the lesbian Fleabag, or of Bridget Jones. I enjoyed it.
For those of us who want to disturb ourselves with potential futures for a post-pandemic world:
There are lots of books on this topic, but these are amongst the ones I’ve loved most:
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is the quintessential virus dystopia – a deeply engaging, complex story about a post-pandemic world. It is so interesting to think about the aftermath, and what is important, and what makes a good life. This book is excellent.
A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen has just recently been published in a ghoulishly timely way. 70% of the US population has been killed by a virus. This book starts when the remaining world is starting to gather itself. It focuses on an interesting set of people who come together during the book and start moving towards a new future. It’s pretty good.
The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James is set in London after pretty much everyone in the world has died following a virus. The main protagonists are the two youngest people in the world, destined to be the last people on Earth. Which is such an interesting concept in itself. The plot of this book is unexpected (well, to me), and the tone is tender and intimate. It was sad and lovely and optimistic, and a speedy read.
For those of us who want to read a different type of dystopia to comfort ourselves that there will always be many potential risks in this world:
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson has the sun dying, and the Earth is slowed down to give humans enough time to make Mars habitable. It’s an epic book, spanning the lives of the protagonists and across the globe. It’s complex, interesting, and recommended.
Emily Eternal by MG Wheaton also has the sun dying. Emily is an artificial consciousness designed to be like a human. When her development is interrupted by the unfortunate news that the sun and thus the world is dying, she commits herself to saving humanity. Which sounds like a big story but it is intimate, and filled with both adventure and romance. It’s outstanding and brimming with ideas about what it means to be a human.
The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sherriff is about the moon veering off course, drawing slowly closer to the earth, and finally crashing into it in 1946, as described by a Hampshire schoolteacher. Compelling, and such a brilliant voice. Loved it.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute is one of the most haunting and human descriptions I’ve read of a possible end of the world by nuclear fallout. This one is the most depressing book on this list. But it’s also really good, and really interesting.
Just get me off the planet!
Dawn, Adult Rites, and Imago by Octavia Butler are three books in a really brilliant trilogy. These books are so fresh, so interesting, so inventive, and so imbued with ideas that for anyone with a passing interest in books about space, but more importantly in other ways to live, the nature of relationships, and what it means to be human (or not human) they are essential.
Another almost equally glorious trilogy with a similar theme (though also very different in tone and technology) is The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. It is so brilliant, again about what it means to be human (or not human). Unmissable.
SevenEves by Neil Stephenson is an amazing epic (with a time span giving new meaning to the word epic) in a meticulously realized dystopia. The end of the world is nothing new for fiction… but I’m not sure I’ve ever read much of the long view of what happens generations afterwards. This book is not perfect, but it is crammed with ideas, and I think about it all the time.
Just a few suggestions from things I’ve enjoyed in the past few years. Enjoy your reading, whatever you choose. It’s a glorious pleasure and you finally have time to do more of it than usual. I’m planning to go for it. Feel free to leave me suggestions, now you know what I enjoy! (Oh look, this blog was a selfish attempt to get reading recommendations all along, designed as an altruistic guide to augment your coronavirus reading list – rumbled).