Much as I loved Station Eleven, I entreat you not to read it at the moment, this is not the time for dystopian fiction. I’m an escapist reader. I can cope with any amount of misery and peril if it’s set in an alternate universe or a fantasy world that feels far removed from our present reality. So, for a change I set myself a challenge to find books that were not merely distracting, but actually optimistic, redemptive, inspiring, or at least amusing. It’s an eclectic list but hopefully it should cater to a variety of reading preferences.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
Now that we spend most of our days reading on a screen it is easy to forget the simple pleasure of paging through a beautiful book. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is a visual feast—an exquisitely illustrated book, filled with thoughtful and lyrical meditations on friendship, kindness and life in general.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
I’m not one for non-fiction generally and political memoir falls even lower on my priority list, but Michelle Obama won me over with her warmth, her sincerity and her wonderful storytelling gift. It probably helped that I listened to an audio version of this book—listening to Michelle Obama tell her own story only enhanced the experience. Becoming has powerful things to say about prejudice, privilege, ambition and personal growth—an inspiring read.
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
Set in the mountains of Kentucky in the 1930s, The Giver of Stars is based on the true history of travelling ‘packhorse librarians’, set up by Eleanor Roosevelt, an intrepid group of women delivering books and literacy to the far-flung families of Appalachia. A story of hardship and injustice but also of courage, love, friendship and triumph over adversity. (And crucially—the importance of libraries and librarians!)
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
I couldn’t resist one escapist read from my favourite sci-fi author. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a novella about Ariadne, an astronaut, on a long voyage of exploration to four different planets. It encapsulates the spirit of space exploration but also muses on the ethics of space colonisation. And that is what I love most about Becky Chamber’s fiction—in her universe the future is a hopeful place where, though we have suffered the consequences of our own self-destructive tendencies, we have also actually learned something from our mistakes. Imagine that?
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie
The Portable Veblen is a simply lovely book about an incongruous selection of subjects: marriage, familial relationships, medical advertising blurbs, the FDA approval process, and squirrels. The squirrels are the most important bit of course. I particularly enjoyed this bit of wisdom a squirrel imparts to the main character Veblen: ‘I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted…’ Don’t we all!
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Fifteen-year-old Bee Branch has achieved perfect grades and as a reward her parents have promised her a family cruise to Antarctica for Christmas—but this could prove a problem for Bee’s agoraphobic mother Bernadette. When Bernadette disappears, just before the family are due to leave, Bee must investigate to find out where her mother has gone. This is a clever satire on contemporary life, but the story is relayed with a lot of warmth and affection, in particular the relationship between Bee and her mother, and it has many laugh-out-loud moments. A satisfying and enjoyable read.
The Humans by Matt Haig
The Humans is the moving and enjoyable story of an alien experiencing human life for the first time and trying to decide if there is any value to it. At first, he finds us repulsive but soon he is won over by Emily Dickinson, Debussy and peanut butter. I can’t fault his taste. The Humans is a philosophical novel but one with a sense of humour and a refreshing lack of pretension, for example, this wise advice: ‘Don’t always try to be cool. The whole universe is cool. It’s the warm bits that matter.’
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
What, another memoir? After the death of her mother and the breakdown of her marriage, Cheryl Strayed made an impulsive decision to hike the thousand-mile length of the Pacific Crest Trail, alone. I was worried that this book was going to be a bit too Eat, Pray, Love but fortunately it doesn’t have the same canned-epiphany vibe and I really enjoyed it. Cheryl Strayed’s journey, both geographically and emotionally, is completely captivating and inspiring (and made me want to hike the Pacific Crest trail!)
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman
Perhaps this one is little too on the nose, but if anyone can make you feel cheerful about the end of the world, it’s going be Pratchett and Gaiman. Good Omens is a laugh-out-loud hilarious adventure about an angel and a fallen angel teaming up in an attempt to locate the Anti-Christ and prevent the end of the world. It also has some delightfully poignant moments and (spoiler alert) a happy ending—in case you were worried. Thoroughly enjoyable.
And to finish—some classic reads…
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
One of the most delightfully weird books I’ve ever read, Cold Comfort Farm is pure satirical silliness. Recently orphaned socialite, Flora Poste, moves in with her country relatives, the gloomy Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, and has to sort through the tangled web of problems that beset them. I will always wonder what it was that Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed.
Catharine and Other Writings by Jane Austen
I’ll admit this is a niche interest selection. Emma of course displays the pinnacle of Jane Austen’s sparkling wit and narrative genius, but can you call yourself a true Janeite if you haven’t read her juvenilia? Catharine and Other Writings is full of unending swooning, matter-of-fact murders, and Austen family in-jokes—the roots of her later works clearly visible in these playful scribblings. I cannot understand or forgive (looking at you, Charlotte Bronte) those who dismissed Jane Austen as a mere observer of banal trivialities, an 18th century Michael McIntyre, without discerning her fierce intellect and scalpel-sharp humour. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
Sylvester by Georgette Heyer
For pure enjoyment I love a Regency romance, and Georgette Heyer is the queen of the genre. Sylvester is one my Heyer favourites: a hero who is titled, rich, principled but proud (AKA Mr Darcy) and a heroine who is witty and intelligent but not pretty enough to be noticed by him in her first London season (Elizabeth Bennet). But she is not just Elizabeth Bennet, she is also Jane Austen, a secret novelist, and she takes her revenge by writing a sharp parody of him as the villain of her gothic tale. Escapes via curricle, kidnappings and other japes ensue…brilliant fun.