Books To Escape & Engage

Sooooo….tough week huh? Whatever you think of the election results from across the pond, the resulting global uncertainty means rough times for a lot of people. 2016 has seen a lot of tension in the world and there has, undoubtedly, been a shift to the political right both here in the UK and now across the waves in the US also. And as a result a lot of us are feeling, well, a bit scared. So I wanted to write a post that, in some small way, might help to combat that and to share some books that can help you escape from the bad stuff, even if that’s just for a little while. 

That said, I know there are a lot of people out there (me included) who want to take recent events as a wake up call – an opportunity to become more politically engaged with and active within the world – so I’ve also included a couple of books that I feel challenge attitudes and help us to better engage with each other as empathetic human beings. So whether you’re looking for a comfort read to escape into or something to get you all fired up and ready for action, read on!

Comfort Reads

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)When the going gets tough, the tough hit the bookshelves. Okay, so I’m paraphrasing but there’s a lot to be said for cutting yourself some slack and curling up with a cosy read when the bad stuff is really getting to you. After all, if you don’t look after yourself and let yourself indulge in a bit of cosiness every now and then, your body and mind will be in no fit state to get out there and fight the good fight the rest of the time. 

There’s a few places I turn to when the chips are down, the first being to old favourites. The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien is my very favourite book.  From the moment my beloved, much-missed Grandad read me the opening pages about Mr Bilbo Baggins and his eleventy-first birthday plans, I was hooked. At it’s most basic, LOTR is a good old-fashioned adventure story with classic good versus evil narrative. Scratch beneath the surface however and it’s so much more than that. Tolkien himself saw both the best and the worst that humanity had to offer, fighting in the trenches of the First World War, and he put it all into this book. There’s friendship, romance (and bromance), messages about tolerance and understanding and oh so much more. It never fails to comfort me in a crisis and now more than ever I think we need to remember that there’s some good in the world and it’s worth fighting for. Honourable mention here to J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which needs no introduction and is another go-to feel-good fantasy for snuggling up with.

Pride and PrejudiceFor non-fantasy fans, I find a Jane Austen never fails to cheer me up. Pride and Prejudice is, of course, perfection itself but I would also suggest Northanger Abbey, an earlier work that often gets overlooked but has a great deal of Austen’s trademark wit as well as a lively satire of the gothic novel and the risks of believing everything you read – a moral that could still be learnt by many in the social media age. Another honourable mention here for Georgette Heyer, whose rollicking regency romances provide drama and humour in equal measure. 

The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple #1)Or how about a bit of classic crime? Queen of the golden age, Agatha Christie never fails to divert me with her ingenious plotting and quintessentially English settings. For true cosiness, I recommend the sharp-eyed Miss Marple, starting with The Murder at the Vicarage. The British Library Crime Classics series also has some true gems, with re-issues of a number of over-looked golden age authors. I’ve recently discovered John Bude’s Superintendent Meredith series, starting with The Lake District Murder, which provide gently taxing mysteries that revel in the intricacies of solid, dogged police work. Another cosy favourite is Simon Brett, with both his Mrs Pargeter novels and his later series of Fethering Mysteries featuring fussy ex-civil servant Carol and her hippy neighbour Jude.

Guards! Guards! (Discworld, #8; City Watch #1)If humour is more your thing, very little bits a dose of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series. Pratchett had that magical ability to be extremely funny whilst also being extremely relevant and his skewering of many modern mores within the Discworld framework never fails to make me laugh. My personal favourites are the Guards series, which begins with Guards! Guards!

Finally, for a non-fiction recommendation, I give you Matt Haig’s wonderful Reasons to Stay Alive. This isn’t exactly comfort reading – it’s a fairly direct confrontation with the darkest days of mental illness – but Matt is so unfailingly positive in his approach and has written with such heart and passion that it’s a real boost for anyone feeling that life has just kicked them down. And, as it says in the title, it provides many, many reasons to keep hoping, to keep engaging and to keep living. Which leads me nicely to… 

Engaging Reads

For those whose feelings tend towards action, reading has a lot to offer. Books have always enabled us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and to engage with cultures and people that we might otherwise misinterpret or even ignore. Publishing has become much more aware of minority voices in the last few years which is a real boon for readers who can now more easily access stories from diverse voices. To be an engaged reader is to be an engaged person in the world, to struggle with ideas that are not your own and, ultimately, one of the first steps to challenging concepts and ideas in a mature and responsible way.

The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the MediaWomen’s rights have come a long way but I  feel like 2016 has seen some bumps in the road. For me that makes books like The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerence Guide to the Mediaby Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, even more important. There’s been a good deal of discussion about the role of the media in the political and social events of 2016 so a book that examines how women are portrayed in newspapers, in magazines and online is more timely now than ever. More kick-ass feminist writing comes courtesy of the indomitable Caitlin Moran whose How to Be a Woman should be required reading for all – and who expands into politics with her Moranifesto. And whilst it’s guaranteed to make you feel very angry indeed, Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism is a reminder of what we’re all fighting for. 

With a more political bent, Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala is a resonating memoir about both the dangers and the importance of standing up for what you believe in – and is evidence that one voice really can change the world. And Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable story about the liberating power of literature in the face of repression. 

In the Orchard, the SwallowsFor those who prefer fiction, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale issues a powerful warning about how easily the world can turn with just a few steps in the wrong direction. Peter Hobbs’ achingly moving novella In the Orchard, the Swallows reminds us of the enduring power of love and tenderness in the face of a corrupt and terrible enemy. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, whilst brutally unforgiving, is a novel about the virtues of compassion and a reminder that even the most successful person could well be putting on a brave face. And, more recently published, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad provides a timely reminder about how far civil rights have progressed alongside a harrowing narrative that really brings the horrors of slavery to life. 

The Gigantic Beard That Was EvilStephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is a brilliant graphic novel that examines the nature of other and what it means to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – stylishly drawn in black and white with little dialogue, Collins’ modern fable has a powerful message hidden within its seemingly simple tale. 

And for those who find that poetry quiets the soul but feeds the mind, the Bloodaxe series of anthologies edited by Neil Astley, starting with Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Timesprovide a series of challenging poems on various topics from a diverse range of contemporary poets. 

The Good ImmigrantFinally, a recommendation for a book that I haven’t yet read but very much intend to, which is The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla which is a series of essays by 21 writers examining what it means to be black, asian and minority ethnic in Britain today. 

Whatever your feelings about the year so far, I hope you’ll find these recommendations useful – we all need a little comfort now and again and we also need occasionally reminding about the power of literature to do good in the world. Hopefully this selection of books will do a little bit of both. As always, I’d love to know your thoughts if you’ve read any of them – and I’d be delighted to receive recommendations for any titles you would choose as comfort reads or engaging reads. You can find me on Twitter @amyinstaffs, on Litsy @shelfofunreadbooks and over on Goodreads as Shelf of Unread Books – or drop a comment down below. Stay safe my lovelies and never give up what you believe in – and, as always….

Happy Reading x

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