Random book recommendations to help you through the lockdown!

If you’re wondering what to do with your time now that you’re shut up indoors waiting out COVID-19, then you might be thinking that it would be a good time to get into reading again. While book shopping isn’t an essential reason to go outside now, I’d like to remind you all that there are several possibilities available for eReader apps on your smartphone, tablet or computer if you have one. Slightly less agreeable on the eyes than an actual book or eBook, these apps can be a good way of picking something up if you’re stuck in the house. I can also highly recommend audiobooks for those that might want to listen to something other than the news while pottering about the house.

While it’s always a good time to snuggle down with one of your favourites or a classic (which has the advantage of actually being something you might have to hand as well) I thought that I’d jot down below some random book suggestions from what I’ve read over the past year to help if you’ve been struggling to find something to suit you. Most of these will be in the fantasy genre because that’s about 90% of what I read, but you might be able to find something in here that tickles your fancy even if monsters and magic aren’t your things. I’ve tried to make sure that most of these are well known so they should be pretty easy to find, you may even have a copy lying about the house that you’ve never got around to reading yet.

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

A good ol’ cottage detective story

If you want a cottage mystery story but already know every Miss Marple off by heart you might want to take a look at the works of Julia Chapman and notably The Dales Detective series (starting with “Date with Death”). We follow the story of Samson O’Brien, ex-cop turned private detective who has recently set up shop in the Yorkshire Dales, and his landlady and unwanted assistant Delilah Metcalfe, the owner of the struggling Dales Dating Agency, as they race to solve mysteries. While not particularly my cup of tea they are easy-going whodunnits with the added advantage of being set in wonderful descriptions of the Yorkshire Dales, perfect for just relaxing.

Medieval Murders

Perhaps you prefer a more historical slant to your detectives? Then a good start would be the Cadfael series by Ellis Peters (starting with “A Morbid Taste for Bones”) which you may already know from its BBC adaptation starting Derek Jacobi and Marlon from Emmerdale. This Benedictine monk in Shrewsbury has to rely on his knowledge of human nature and medicinal plants to solve gruesome murders long before forensics were around. As well as being good detective stories this series is a wonderful way to learn about medieval England and notably the “The Anarchy” around 1140 involving the fight for the crown between Stephen and Maud.

Magic mysteries

Harry Dresden is the eponymous hero of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Set in an alternate version of 1990’s Chicago the first book in the series (the, unfortunately, names “Storm Front”) follows the life of Harry Dresden, wizard and P.I., as he aids the Chicago PD in solving a grisly double murder that might just cost him his own life. Jim Butcher blends modern-day life with just enough paranormal to get the fantasy blood flowing. Suffers slightly from the fact that women seem to want to throw themselves at the protagonist, but a good read that’s easy going and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Plus, if you like it there are 16 other books in the series, and I’ve heard that they really get good from book three onwards, so you’ll have plenty to occupy yourself with while waiting for the lockdown to end.

I want more of that hit Netflix show

Well, you’re in luck because The Witcher is based on a book series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The first book in the series, called “The Last Wish”, is a series of short stories that detail much of what we could call the Geralt Timeline from the show. It was written in the early ’90s, which was a very different time for fantasy, and includes considerable amounts of gratuitous fanservice, but apart from that, it’s a really good story about destiny and human nature and the role of decisions in our lives.

I want something gritty, but with more guns and technology

So, the gritty world of The Witcher interests you but you don’t want to read something you’ve already seen, and you want some good old flintlock pistols in your life. The Raven’s Mark trilogy by Ed McDonald might be just what you’re looking for. Blackwing, McDonald’s debut novel, is a tale of a few desperate unlikely heroes trying to save the world from the insane, twisted horrors that are trying to destroy it. The world that McDonald has created, while definitely more towards the grim and dark end of the happiness scale, is refreshing and innovative mixing swords, gunpowder, solar-powered magic and a world destroyed by fantasy nuclear weapons. If you’re looking for something light to distract you at the moment then maybe save it for later, but I highly recommend it for any fan of the darker side of fantasy.

That’s still not dark enough for me

Ok then, let’s take it all the way back then. Tolkein is often cited as the grandfather of the fantasy we know today, but Glen Cook, Vietnam Vet, is the Granddaddy of GrimDark. The Black Company series (starting with the aptly named “The Black Company”) codified bleak and unrelentingly dark fantasy. Cook uses a very clipped writing style with little time given to exposition and explanation, marking a vast difference from the romantic musings of Tolkein. The books are told from the point of view of Croaker, the physician of the band of anti-heroes (if not downright villains) that make up the Black Company, a band of mercenaries that get the job done, no matter what it is. Cook’s past in Vietnam is definitely on show in this military fantasy where it’s hard to tell who we’re actually meant to be rooting for.

Ok, this has finally got too dark for me

Ok, let’s dig our way out of the pit of bleakness we’ve got ourselves into and get back to something that might be more digestible. In The Final Empire (first of The Mistborn Trilogy) by Brandon Sanderson, we follow the adventures of Vin and her mentor Kelsier as they try to overthrow the Evil Empire that’s currently dominating the world.  This is one of the earlier works by Sanderson, and the writing style is quite heavy. There is a lot of exposition in this book, explaining notably how the magic in this world works (it’s based on consuming metal basically), it’s incredibly detailed and fascinating but it can’t be said that it’s been naturally slipped into the conversation. The dialogue is somewhat stunted, and there is a fair bit of teen angst in the novels (because, well some of the main characters are teens), but it is an amazing example of plot and worldbuilding, especially if you go to the end of the trilogy.

Hey, remember when it was just an economic crisis?

Ah 2008, how time flies. If you want to reminisce about the heady days of the financial crisis then why not poke fun at the folly of it all in Orconomics, the first book in The Dark Profit Saga by Zachary J. Pike. In this satire, we look at what happens when the world of finance meets Dungeons and Dragons. While the critique of the banking system is low hanging fruit, Pike manages to provide a good story on top of the parody making for a good read rather than just being trite. Plus, the sequel (Son of a Liche) builds on the story to make a compelling tale showing that it has staying power beyond the satire.  

What if I want our world but more twisted?

Look no further than Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, set-in modern-day London but also in the Other London, Gaiman’s brilliant twisted take on the world that lives on the magic between the cracks. This stand-alone book is barely fantasy in most aspects and provides a wonderful re-imagination of all the places and ideas that we know about our world and London to provide a compelling story. Neil Gaiman’s usual style is present in the book, with a description of heights that will make you think that you have vertigo. A must-read.

Now I want to know more about London, preferably through the medium of an autobiography of a wonderful person who will teach me interesting facts about life and the world at large.

Well, that’s a very specific wish, but why not look into Between the Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus, the sort-of-autobiography by Sandi Toksvig (host of QI and the Great British Bake Off). Providing an interesting blend of memoir, a guide on the history of London and the people who make the world the amazing place it is. If you’re looking for a straight-forward auto-biography, it may not be for you, as it tends to meander around a fair bit and mixes both history and current affairs (Toksvig is a prominent feminist after all), but I personally enjoyed the experience much more than most memoirs that I’ve read. Sandi Toksvig is also currently releasing one ten-minute YouTube video a day where she talks about some prominent fact or person that she’s found as she looks through the books in her house, definitely a good way to relax for a few minutes.

I want to make the most of this time to expand my mind

I have a hard time recommending this last one, but its influence and its presence in pretty much every “this random business leader thinks you should read these 10 books before you inevitably die” list can’t be denied. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a look into the way we think as humans. While some of the research his has based parts of his work on can be controversial, in the whole it’s an interesting look into our biases and mistakes, as well as pointing out just how bad we are at understanding statistics and probabilities, something that seems rather important in current times. It’s written in an easy style which helps you understand the references without getting too academic, though at points it gets a bit repetitive and can be somewhat of a slog. If you’re looking for something that gets you thinking, then this could well be a good start.

And now for something completely different

Well, that was a fair few books, but what if you just want to relax and zone out. In that case, the National Theatre is currently releasing a recording of one of their plays on YouTube every Thursday. This week it’s “One Man, Two Guvnors”, a comedy starting James Corden, with next week’s being the classic “Jane Eyre” (airing at 19:00 GMT on the 9th of April). If you can’t find what you want to watch on TV and you’ve already binged on everything Netflix has to offer, then definitely check out the National Theatre YouTube channel as a way to spend a few hours.

Anyway, that was a fair few books and other little tidbits that I hope might have something that might interest you enough to pick it up.  If you want more a deeper review of any of these books that you can find them on my Goodreads page where I’ve tried to review pretty much everything I’ve read since August 2019 (https://www.goodreads.com/samphassell).

If you have your own recommendations then don’t hesitate to talk about them below and I’ll add them to my TBR.

Stay inside as much as possible, listen to guidelines in your county, and stay safe.

Sam

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