Spending more time at home in the evenings and weekends has undoubtedly freed up some time for me to get back to what I love...reading. In search of some inspiration, I asked my literature-guru friend Hannah for some book suggestions - and thought that I’d share them with you too. I always find it easiest to take the plunge and get stuck into a book when I know a little bit about it first. Some of my favourite books are those that have been recommended to me by friends and family (The L Shaped Room - Lynn Reid Banks being one of them). So below are Hannah’s recommendations of books that are perfect to escape into. Emma x
The Architect’s Apprentice
- Elif Shafak
Every word that comes out of Elif Shafak’s mouth is inspirational and affirming; she speaks eloquently about everything from politics to loneliness (I recommend finding her on Instagram). Her fiction is similarly wonderful, she builds bustling worlds full of characters, often (in her words) misfits of some kind, that you quickly grow to love and root for.
At this particular moment, The Architect’s Apprentice is just the kind of all-encompassing historical narrative to lose yourself in, a polar-opposite antidote to refreshing the Guardian homepage. Set in Istanbul during the late sixteenth century, the story concerns Jahan, an interloper posing as a mahout (elephant trainer) to a rare white elephant who is given to the Sultan for his royal menagerie. The story follows Jahan as he grows up, navigating the politics of the palace, unrequited love and war. Along the way he makes many friends and enemies, and becomes the apprentice to a great Turkish architect.
Most definitely worth a read, even if historical fiction doesn’t usually grab you. I promise you will be transported.
- Curtis Sittenfeld
Speaking of historical fiction, I’ve found Jane Austen quite comforting at the moment, too. Somehow it’s still possible to get lost in an extremely long paragraph about all the minutiae of just who is important enough to be invited to a dinner party in a huge mansion in 1806…
Eligible is all of these, basically little, things in life but much more relatable and relevant. In Sittenfeld’s modern update of Pride and Prejudice, set in suburban America, Jane and Lizzie return to their family home to help out whilst their father recovers from heart surgery. With their three younger sisters still living there, they fall into their usual sisterly patterns of annoyance and various wilful misunderstandings. Eligible bachelors Chip Bingley (here a doctor and reality TV star) and the snobbish Fitzwilliam Darcy soon appear on the scene, and entanglements ensue.
Whether you know Austen’s original story or not, this is light and funny, all about love, family and riding out those awkward situations. Perfect if you’re spending lockdown re-binge-watching classic shows like Gilmore Girls and Gossip Girl.
Finn Family Moomintroll
- Tove Jansson
In this adventure, Moominpappa finds a magical top hat, leading to much excitement. When the Moomins and their friends drop things into it, the hat causes all sorts of transformations. Egg shells become clouds, pink perennials become a huge, thick jungle. Throughout these minor mishaps, everyone remains buoyant and thoughtful in the way things can only be in Moomin-land, all the way up to the beautiful, moonlit party at the end of the book. The Moomin stories are full of nuggets of wisdom and sentiments which make your insides glow;
“I'm afraid we shall waste an awful lot of time."
"Don't worry," answered Snufkin, "we shall have wonderful dreams, and when we wake up it'll be spring.”
I was put off the Moomins for years, because of the terrifying TV show which used to be on before I went to school, but honestly the books, and Jansson’s perfect illustrations, are lovely and warming, and a much-needed, comforting break from reality.
The Inner Lives of Animals
- Peter Wohlleben
This is a collection of writings about the complex lives of animals, mostly those that Wohlleben, who is a German forester, observes in his daily life, such as squirrels, bees, crows and dogs. In the book, he uses personal anecdotes to convince us of every animal’s breadth of understanding, intelligence and emotion. Squirrels can recognise their grandparents, for instance. Crows are scarily clever and capable of all sorts of tricks; knowing when Wohlleben is watching, they pretend to bury acorns in one place before sneaking them off elsewhere when they are sure he’s not looking. Wohlleben’s warm and anecdotal tone, backed up by scientific findings, is enjoyable to read whilst feeling like you’re learning something.
If you like (or like the idea of) Marie Kondo and other kinds of mindfulness, I think The Inner Lives of Animals is ideal during this strange time - a meditative way to look not inside of yourself (which can be draining sometimes) but instead to look outwards, at the quirks of the animals we see day by day, in a garden or a London park, on a balcony or from a window ledge, and to wonder instead at their own rich lives.
- Jung Chang
This is a sweeping biography of Jung Chang’s family, beginning with her grandmother, following on to her mother and lastly herself. As well as being a highly personal, emotive account of each of the women’s experiences, it is also a groundbreaking history of China, spanning almost the entirety of the twentieth century. Each generation sees changes in power, law and rules by which to live by; her grandmother, the concubine of a warlord, still had to have her feet bound, and at times the hardships endured by her mother under Mao’s Communist regime seems endless. Each woman suffers, loves and perseveres throughout their turbulent lives, all against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution.
This is undoubtedly harrowing reading, but also important and ultimately uplifting (and unputdownable). I have read this book at least three times and it remains one of my favourites. If you enjoy reading biographies, or history, or just anything about truly incredible, brave women, then you will devour this.
Buying new books is also an opportunity to continue supporting small businesses during this uncertain time. Plenty of independent bookshops are still open (behind closed doors) and able to post out. Two of my favourites are Daunt Books and the beautiful Phlox Books in North London, who are both delivering by post to anywhere in the UK (Phlox is even delivering by bike throughout London).