When faced with a lengthy period of time confined indoors, as more and more of us are these days, it can be difficult to fill the extra hours. To help while away the time, I’ve made a list of books that I love which are absorbing, well written, hopeful and generous-hearted. All of them have eased my own heart at one time or another. I hope they do the same for you.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Synopsis: Due to the jealousy and bitterness of three of his rivals, Edmond Dantes is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. On the fortress of If, he learns from a fellow prisoner of a fantastical hoard of buried treasure on the Isle of Monte Cristo, and becomes determined to escape prison, find the treasure, and enact revenge on the people who have deprived him of love, freedom and happiness for so many years.
Thoughts: This book honestly has everything you could possibly want from an adventure story: a prison break! Bandits! Buried treasure! Lesbians! Disguises and false identities! Evil people getting their comeuppance! Vampires! Don’t be put off by the length — it’s gripping all the way through.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Synopsis: In newly independent India, Mrs Rupa Mehra is looking for a suitable boy for her daughter Lata to marry, although Lata prefers her own methods for finding love. From these central characters the stories of four extended families spiral out, and through their lives and loves we learn about the layers and complexity of Indian society & politics.
Thoughts: The perfect read if you have a lot of time on your hands -— absorbing, compelling, richly imagined and plotted. Full of heart and humanity.
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Synopsis: Writing a succinct summary of a Dickens novel is practically impossible, so I’ll just say that this one explores the corrupting power of wealth, the humanity of the working class & the selfishness and stupidity of the rich, through an unforgettable cast of characters and intricate, intertwining subplots.
Thoughts: Dickens isn’t for everyone but I honestly enjoy his novels, mostly because of his deep love of humanity and his humour. This is probably my favourite one – it’s entertaining, observant, satirical and very, very funny. (Note: You may have heard that Charles Dickens couldn’t have written a female character who’s not a two-dimensional caricature to save his life. This is true, but with the character of the spoiled, wilful, charming Bella in Our Mutual Friend, he came pretty close.)
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
Synopsis: A sweeping overview of the dramatic, violent events of the French Revolution, focusing on the lives of three men who ‘stepped into the cold, harsh light of history’ to shape the French Revolution: Danton, Robespierre & Desmoulins, and their families and friends.
Thoughts: Hilary Mantel is a genius. This novel is breath-taking and intense and will swallow you up whole and spit you out after 800 pages of intense, powerful prose. I’d take another 800 in a heartbeat.
God’s Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane
Synopsis: This book follows the stories of workers on the Dakar-Niger railway line as they embark on a months-long strike to demand better working conditions, better pay and better provision for their families from the French bosses.
Thoughts: If the fact that rents haven’t been cancelled has put you in the mood for a rent strike, read this account based on the real life events of a successful train strike in 1947. It is one of the most powerful anti-colonial novels I’ve ever read and an incredible examination of the meaning of solidarity and of resistance to imperialism.
America is not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
Synopsis: Hero de Vera moves to the suburbs of San Jose to live with her uncle Pol, aunt Paz and their ten-year-old daughter Roni, after her parents in the Philippines disown her. Hurting from the trauma of her past, she is drawn out of her shell by the exuberant, chatty Roni, and begins to find solace and love in the insular community of Filipino-Americans.
Thoughts: A tender, bittersweet, beautiful story about healing, family, the ties that bind people close and pull them apart, the power of food to hold a community together, and most of all love.
Maurice by E. M. Forster
Synopsis: Unpublished in Forster’s lifetime, Maurice is the story of the life and loves of Maurice Hall, an ordinary man in turn-of-the-century England struggling with his feelings for his fellow student Clive.
Thoughts: This book is about muddled feelings and the confusion of life and human connection and of course, love. Forster wanted to write something unheard of in England at the time – a gay love story with a happy ending in England. It’s beautiful and quietly revolutionary.
Zami by Audre Lorde
Synopsis: An ‘autobiomythography’, combining autobiography & myth, this is the story of Audre Lorde’s childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, told through beautiful and tender portraits of the many women she loved and who loved her, and how each of them left their mark on her life.
Thoughts: A joyful, riotous, rich novel, bursting with life. I love how tenderly Audre Lorde writes about loving women and the women who have shaped her.
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Synopsis: Quoyle is an unhappy man, who moves to his old family home Newfoundland after the death of both his wife and parents with his two daughters Bunny & Sunshine and his aunt. Over the course of the book, Quoyle learns how to become part of a tightly knotted community, how to take pride in the work that he does, how to take care of his daughters, and how to open his heart up to love: real love, without pain or misery.
Thoughts: This book is about second chances, and family, and human beings carving out space for themselves in the strangest of spaces. Annie Proulx’s writing is funny, bittersweet and evocative and this book is a quietly joyful tour de force.
Staying Alive ed. Neil Astley
Synopsis: The by-line of this anthology is ‘Real Poems for Unreal Times’, and it collects together over 500 “life-affirming poems fired by belief in the human and the spiritual at a time when much in the world feels unreal, inhuman and hollow”.
Thoughts: I love this anthology so much! I’m always reluctant to recommend poetry as I think it’s such a personal thing, but this collection is so varied and beautiful that even if you think you don’t like poetry, I guarantee there is a poem in here for you. They’re grouped by theme, so you can dip in and out depending on your mood.
Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin
Synopsis: The Kesh are an imagined community that ‘might be going to have lived a long, long time from now’. This isn’t a single story, rather an entire culture that we learn about through poems and stories and histories and recipes and songs.
Thoughts: This book is just lovely and a perfect, hopeful read to immerse yourself in. Ursula le Guin has an incredible ability to make you see the possibility of a different way of living and being with one another. It will make you believe in the power of community and in people’s reliance on each other. Another world is possible!
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Synopsis: The story of the journey taken by nine inhabitants of Middle Earth into the heart of the land of the Dark Lord Sauron, all to destroy the One Ring, the source of his power.
Thoughts: The ultimate quest and fantasy book. It’s not without its problems, but it’s worth a read purely for the incredible imagination Tolkien has. The world that he builds and describes so faithfully is magical.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Synopsis: In the ten thousandth year of the reign of the Undying Emperor, he summons the necromantic heirs of his Nine Houses to compete for the honour of ascending to become one of his Saints. Each necromancer needs a cavalier to act as their sword, so Gideon the Ninth reluctantly joins her acerbic enemy-turned-reluctant-ally, the necromancer Harrowhark, as they battle living and dead alike to help Harrow ascend to sainthood.
Thoughts: Look, the synopsis didn’t make any sense to me either when I first read it, but this really is a masterpiece of a book. You’ll be captivated by the sharp, hilarious prose, intricate plot, incredible fight scenes (involving more bones than you could possibly imagine) & most of all by the unforgettable cast of characters.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Synopsis: A famous Hollywood actor dies in the middle of a production of King Lear, beginning the collapse of civilisation. Fifteen years in the future, only 1% of humanity remains on Earth, and a travelling troupe of actors performs Shakespeare to the scattered settlements that remain. The novel jumps back and forth between the two times, charting the spread of a mysterious virus in the past and exploring the dynamics and everyday life of the actors in the future.
Thoughts: This might be a bit close to home for some people given its focus on a pandemic. But it’s a hopeful book and I would still recommend it for its belief both in humanity’s ability to endure, and the everlasting power of art.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Synopsis: A group of rabbits, led by Hazel and his brother Fiver, who leave their warren after Fiver foresees that danger is coming to it. Only a few rabbits believe them, but the ones they convince to join them on their quest to build a new warren set out on a long and dangerous journey that will unite them together.
Thoughts: A tale of adventure, bravery and cunning, and of loyalty, trust and comradeship. It’s also a wonderful meditation on the beauty of the countryside, with some really lovely descriptive passages on the flora and fauna of the fields and woodlands that the rabbits travel through.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Synopsis: Maia is half-goblin, half-elf, and upon the mysterious death of his father and three brothers, must ascend to the throne of the Elven empire and navigate the intricate politics and customs of his court.
Thoughts: Maia is such a wonderful creation – deeply empathetic, he tries so hard to be kind and good, despite his confusion and terror at the new role he has to fill. The elaborate rules and history of the Elflands will keep your mind occupied for days.
If you’re feeling more ambitious, here are some book series you can get your teeth into:
The Neapolitan novels, by Elena Ferrante
Synopsis: The story of two friends, Elena and Lila, growing up in Naples in the 1950s. It’s both a portrait of their lives and loves and friendship, deeply rooted in the changing landscape of their neighbourhood in Naples.
Thoughts: I love these books. They’re clever, gripping and utterly compelling. I’ve never read such an incredible account of a female friendship and the love, solidarity, jealousy, envy that exists in the unbreakable bond between Lenu and Lila. More than that, I think they portray so clearly how the lives of women are constantly shaped by male violence and control. This sounds intense, and the books are intense, but they’re also suffused with tenderness and warmth. When I finished reading them I walked about in a daze for a while, missing Lenu and Lila and their world.
Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel
Synopsis: The story of England in the time of Henry VIII, focusing on the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell as he first assists Henry in divorcing his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marrying Anne Boleyn; then removing the Boleyns and their allies from power and arranging Henry’s next marriage to Jane Seymour; and finally helping Henry search for a wife after Jane Seymour’s death; all while dissolving the monasteries and instating Henry as the head of Church and State. Thomas Cromwell can do anything and make an ally out of anyone. But the Tudor world is brutal and cut-throat and his power is envied by many.
Thoughts: Once again, Hilary Mantel is a genius. There’s really nothing else I can say other than you absolutely have to read these books.
The Hainish cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
Synopsis: The unofficial title for a collection of books set in a universe where civilisations living on different planets come into contact with each other for the first time. In this history, human beings did not evolve on Earth, but were planted there many millennia ago, as one of a number of planets ‘colonised’ by Hain, the oldest of the human worlds. Le Guin explores the different sociological outcomes of the varied social and environmental settings that human beings must adapt to.
Thoughts: This is sort of cheating on my part to get as much of Ursula Le Guin as possible on the list, but I honestly think her novels are exactly the sort of escapism we need right now: full of compassion and love for humanity and human connection, dreaming both of different ways of structuring society and ways to be with one another. Start with The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, her two masterpieces, but read the lesser known works too, like The Telling, and feel your mind expand into the infinite possibilities of how to live and love.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
Synopsis: The story of Westeros and Essos and the lands beyond the Wall; a civil war for control of Westeros, an exiled queen hungry to reclaim her crown, and a menacing supernatural force that threatens to destroy them all.
Thoughts: The books are worth reading whether or not you like the TV show! Forget the trauma from terrible writing of Seasons 7 and 8 (and 6, if we’re being honest) and sink yourself into the relief of storylines and character development that actually make sense. There are also lots of characters and subplots that didn’t make it into the show, and plenty of theories to keep you going until GRRM finally releases the next book.
Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers
Synopsis: A series of detective novels starring Lord Peter Wimsey as a British gentleman turned amateur sleuth, assisted by his faithful servant Bunter, Detective Charles Parker, and by the detective novelist Harriet Vane (who he eventually falls in love with in a very lovely and bittersweet way).
Thoughts: I love these mystery novels. The plots aren’t as complex as an Agatha Christie book and it’s usually not too difficult to spot the twist, but they’re well written, intelligent, and the topic/setting is often unique and interesting (e.g. the bell ringing in The Nine Tailors or the fictional all-women’s Oxford college she creates in Gaudy Night).
Miriam Gauntlett studies, works & writes in London. Her writing has recently appeared in Porridge Magazine and Dear Damsels. For more of her thoughts on books, find her on Instagram (@mzgreads) or Twitter (@miriaaaaamg).