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…
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.
Women’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 Media, by 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.
For 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.
Stephen 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 Times, provide a series of challenging poems on various topics from a diverse range of contemporary poets.
Finally, 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
It’s a wrap! My first proper attempt at a readathon is done and I have to say it’s been a blast. Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon is, as the name suggests, a readathon that takes place over 24 hours. It has a set start time world-wide meaning that everyone participating is, in theory, reading together and can cheer each other along when the going gets tough. Some participants do try and read for the whole 24 hours but I become a very bad person with lack of sleep so I opted for a slightly less hardcore approach and chose instead to dedicate my waking hours to reading during the 24 hour period. So, how did I get on?
‘Hag-Seed’ by Margaret Atwood
‘Bodies of Water’ by V.H. Leslie
‘Today Will Be Different’ by Maria Semple
Opening a book that has arrived with serious fanfare is always, for me at least, a combination of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because I do love reading exciting new fiction. And trepidation as I worry that the book itself may not live up to the hype, especially when that hype train has been set in motion by the mother of all book promos, The Oprah Book Club. Fortunately, I need not have worried because ‘The Underground Railroad’ is an amazing novel. Difficult, brutal, complex and meditative but amazing through and through.
The novel follows Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation who is an outcast even amongst her fellow slaves. Reduced to sharing space in Hob with fellow outcast women, Cora is struggling with her emerging womanhood and the implications of her own mother’s abandonment when she is approached by Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, who tells her about the Underground Railroad and his daring plan for escape. As she follows Caesar into the unknown, Cora knows she is escaping from a life of punishing labour but she cannot prepare for the hardships that await her as she makes her towards her new life.
It’s very hard to summarise this book in a few paragraphs because Cora’s journey encompasses so much. From the brutal hardships of plantation life to the temporary respite of a southern farmstead, her journey encompasses many versions of the American south and provides a real picture of the complexity of opinion regarding people of colour in the pre-civil war era. When civil rights are taught at school (especially in British schools), the American Civil War is often made out to be a cut off point – the moment at which civil rights and the struggle for freedom took flight. ‘The Underground Railroad’ presents a much more varied portrait of the nation, moving through the terrifying brutality of the slave-owning states to the insidious schemes hiding behind some so-called ‘progressive’ movements and the genuine wish for change within other corners of society. It’s quite an eye-opener and, at times, very difficult to read but also extremely rewarding.
Another strength of the novel is the characters. Cora is tough – she’s had to be all her life – so she’s not an instantly likeable lead. Instead she is a rounded human being, who struggles with her heart and her head and who you really become attached to as the novel progresses. Likewise, Ridgeway – the slave catcher who doggedly pursues Cora and Caesar – is a reprehensible human being in many aspects but he is, throughout, a human being. The passages of conversation between Ridgeway and Cora were, for me, some of the most accomplished in the novel as they really drew on richness of both characters and made the entwining of their fates even more compelling.
One of the defining features of the hype surrounding this novel has been the fact that Whitehead has envisaged the underground railroad as an actual railroad – with stations and conducters, tracks and carriages. This is, indeed, ingenious but, for me, it was almost incidental. Cora’s story seems so true that the fact that the railroad is semi-fantastical almost doesn’t register – it feels as real and as truthful to reality as the rest of the narrative. And that, for me, was the defining sense of this novel – a reality that has been encapsulated for the reader wholly. Whilst you’re reading this book, you are living Cora’s story and following each step on her journey for better or for worse. It is a real accomplishment and an excellent novel that I would highly recommend.
‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet (Little Brown) and is available in hardback and ebook formats now from all good bookstores and online retailers. My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.