21 Books To Read During Quarantine

Now that the UK is in lockdown for the next three weeks, which means we’re going to spending a lot more time indoors. Which obviously means more time for reading, of course. But where do we start?

I’ve actually fallen into an ongoing reading slump, so this post should hopefully inspire me as much as you guys.

Here are 21 books to see us all through.

1. The Familiars – Stacey Halls

The Familiars book cover

“Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.”

What I love about The Familiars is how engaging it is. I just couldn’t wait to find out next and spent hour after hour reading. For anyone wanting to be captivated for a long period of time, this is the book to go for.

2. Diary Of A Bookseller – Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop, Wigtown – Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop. It contains 100,000 books, spread over a mile of shelving, with twisting corridors and roaring fires, and all set in a beautiful, rural town by the edge of the sea. A book-lover’s paradise? Well, almost … In these wry and hilarious diaries, Shaun provides an inside look at the trials and tribulations of life in the book trade, from struggles with eccentric customers to wrangles with his own staff, who include the ski-suit-wearing, bin-foraging Nicky. He takes us with him on buying trips to old estates and auction houses, recommends books (both lost classics and new discoveries), introduces us to the thrill of the unexpected find, and evokes the rhythms and charms of small-town life, always with a sharp and sympathetic eye.

This book had me crying with laughter when I first read it. It’s the perfect comforting read right now – trust me, it’ll put a smile on your face.

3. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

“These thrilling adventures tell the story of Lyra and Will—two ordinary children on a perilous journey through shimmering haunted otherworlds. They will meet witches and armored bears, fallen angels and soul-eating specters. And in the end, the fate of both the living—and the dead—will rely on them.”

Series are great right now as they keep you going through all this uncertainty, keeping you in their worlds for longer. His Dark Materials is an incredible trilogy filled with a multitude of settings and characters, filling your days with magic and companionship.

4. Librarian Of Auschwitz –  Antonio Iturbe

“Based on the experience of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.
Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the Terezín ghetto in Prague, Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Freddy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.”

I get that the last thing we want to be reading right now is more doom and gloom, but hear me out on this one. This terrible yet beautiful novel captivates perfectly the magic of books and how they can lift people up, even in the darkest of times. It’s also one you can read in a day, which gives you enough time to quickly move on to something light-hearted afterward.

5. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

“It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up, and closed down.”

Listed for the same reasons as above, but with more humour and less morbidity.

6. Macbeth – William Shakespeare

“One night on the heath, the brave and respected general Macbeth encounters three witches who foretell that he will become king of Scotland. At first sceptical, he’s urged on by the ruthless, single-minded ambitions of Lady Macbeth, who suffers none of her husband’s doubt. But seeing the prophecy through to the bloody end leads them both spiralling into paranoia, tyranny, madness, and murder.”

For those struggling with isolation, reading is the perfect way to put your mind at ease for a while. And who better to remind us of that than Shakespeare himself, whose plays are filled with some of the most beautiful descriptions you’ll ever read? And hey, for those who have never sat down and read a full Shakespeare play, now’s certainly the time.

7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

Perhaps the most haunting and tormented love story ever written, Wuthering Heights is the tale of the troubled orphan Heathcliff and his doomed love for Catherine Earnshaw.

Published in 1847, the year before Emily Bronte’s death at the age of thirty, Wuthering Heights has proved to be one of the nineteenth century’s most popular yet disturbing masterpieces. The windswept moors are the unforgettable setting of this tale of the love between the foundling Heathcliff and his wealthy benefactor’s daughter, Catherine. Through Catherine’s betrayal of Heathcliff and his bitter vengeance, their mythic passion haunts the next generation even after their deaths. Incorporating elements of many genres—from gothic novels and ghost stories to poetic allegory—and transcending them all, Wuthering Heights is a mystifying and powerful tour de force.

The Bronte’s novels are filled with mysterious characters, ever-twisting plots, memorable settings, and captivating language. If you’re hoping to read a classic during quarantine, I highly recommend this one.

8. On Writing – Stephen King

“Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported near-fatal accident in 1999 — and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it — fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.”

This one is for the writers out there. I’ve been struggling to put any words down recently, probably a side effect of my reading slump, and whatever I do write just doesn’t seem to capture the scenes in my head. Stephen King’s book offers some fantastic advice for aspiring authors, including insights to his routine, past rejections, and writing tips. It’s a good way to get yourself back on track.

9. Harry Potter – J.K Rowling

It starts with Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and Rubeus Hagrid leaving a baby boy, with a tuft of jet-black hair and a curiously shaped wound on his brow, on the doorstep of number four, Privet Drive. They might have thought that his aunt and uncle would look after him kindly. But ten years later, Harry Potter sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs, and the Dursleys – Vernon, Petunia and their son Dudley – don’t exactly treat him like one of the family. Especially as it becomes clear quite how different from them he is.

As his eleventh birthday arrives, the time comes for Harry Potter to discover the truth about his magical beginnings – and embark on the enthralling, unmissable adventure that will lead him to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, his true friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, powerful secrets and a destiny he cannot avoid …

Because reading Harry Potter will always be the best way to spend your time.

10. Lord Of The Rings – J.R.R Tolkien

In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-earth, it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell by chance into the hands of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins.

From Sauron’s fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor, his power spread far and wide. Sauron gathered all the Great Rings to him, but always he searched for the One Ring that would complete his dominion.

When Bilbo reached his eleventy-first birthday he disappeared, bequeathing to his young cousin Frodo the Ruling Ring and a perilous quest: to journey across Middle-earth, deep into the shadow of the Dark Lord, and destroy the Ring by casting it into the Cracks of Doom.

My current isolation read. Tolkien’s trilogy is one hell of a read, and requires some serious dedication. But his rich writing style makes it easier to ignore the outside world by drawing you into Middle-earth. Plus, Sam is one of the best characters ever created.

11. The Silent Companions – Laura Purcell

“When newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge, what greets her is far from the life of wealth and privilege she was expecting . . .

When Elsie married handsome young heir Rupert Bainbridge, she believed she was destined for a life of luxury. But with her husband dead just weeks after their marriage, her new servants resentful, and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie has only her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. Inside her new home lies a locked door, beyond which is a painted wooden figure–a silent companion–that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself. The residents of The Bridge are terrified of the figure, but Elsie tries to shrug this off as simple superstition–that is, until she notices the figure’s eyes following her.”

The Silent Companions is an atmospheric novel that will stay with you for weeks. It’s ideal for when you want to finish a book in one sitting, as Purcell’s alluring Gothic narrative keeps you turning the pages.

12. Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

Louisa Clark is an ordinary girl living an exceedingly ordinary life—steady boyfriend, close family—who has barely been farther afield than their tiny village. She takes a badly needed job working for ex–Master of the Universe Will Traynor, who is wheelchair bound after an accident. Will has always lived a huge life—big deals, extreme sports, worldwide travel—and now he’s pretty sure he cannot live the way he is.

Will is acerbic, moody, bossy—but Lou refuses to treat him with kid gloves, and soon his happiness means more to her than she expected. When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.

Lou is one of my favourite characters of all time – I love her quirkiness and bursts of energy. While the book is darker than the film, Moyes’ masterful writing perfectly captures the relief Lou feels when Will pulls her from of her past and thus carries us through the devastating events in the novel, with Lou coming out the other side as a better person.

13. Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.”

This book contains some of the most stylish aesthetics ever, and it’s so vivid it’s hard to put it down. Plus, the film is being pieced together and I. cannot. wait.

14. The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office–leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand–and fear–the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?”

None of the characters in this book are that likable, but Jessie Burton’s compelling plot is like no other and makes a nice, easy read.

15. Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert

“Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work, embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.”

Big Magic is all about pursuing your creative passions, working on your ideas and being able to express yourself freely in your work. It’s a beautiful book and I highly recommend it, especially for right now.

16. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Join Alice in Wonderland, where nothing is quite as it seems.On an ordinary summer’s afternoon, Alice tumbles down a hole and an extraordinary adventure begins. In a strange world with even stranger characters, she meets a grinning cat and a rabbit with a pocket watch, joins a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and plays croquet with the Queen! Lost in this fantasy land, Alice finds herself growing more and more curious by the minute…

In the magical world of Wonderland and the back-to-front Looking-Glass kingdom, order is turned upside-down: a baby turns into a pig; time is abandoned at a tea-party; and a chaotic game of chess makes a 7-year-old a Queen.”

This is a light-hearted read that contains many snippets of wisdom throughout the whimsical puns, riddles and rhymes. A great way to escape our boring, adult world.

17. The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle

Tonight, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed… again.

It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed.

But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot.

The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath…”

This is a book like no other. While I personally found the first three chapters slow, it really picks up and I spent the majority of my time trying to work out who the killer was.

18. Game Of Thrones – George R.R Martin

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has set the benchmark for contemporary epic fantasy. Labelled by Time magazine as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world, Martin has conjured a world as complex and vibrant as that of J.R.R. Tolkien, populated by a huge cast of fascinating, complex characters, and boasting a history that stretches back twelve thousand years.

Three great storylines weave through the books, charting the civil war for control of the Seven Kingdoms; the defence of the towering Wall of ice in the uttermost north against the unearthly threat of the Others; and across the Narrow Sea the rise to power of Daenerys Targaryen and the last live dragons in the world.”

Because it’s an epic series that requires a lot of dedication, enough to distract you from the gloom around us right now.

19. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Generations of readers young and old, male and female, have fallen in love with the March sisters of Louisa May Alcott’s most popular and enduring novel, Little Women. Here are talented tomboy and author-to-be Jo, tragically frail Beth, beautiful Meg, and romantic, spoiled Amy, united in their devotion to each other and their struggles to survive in New England during the Civil War.”

Little Women is a pleasant read that goes well with a warm fire/blanket and mug of tea. Plus, for all the writers out there who feel like they’re hitting a wall, Jo’s passion for writing will help reignite your imagination.

20. The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte

In this sensational, hard-hitting and passionate tale of marital cruelty, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall sees a mysterious tenant, Helen Graham, unmasked not as a ‘wicked woman’ as the local gossips would have it, but as the estranged wife of a brutal alcoholic bully, desperate to protect her son. Using her own experiences with her brother Branwell to depict the cruelty and debauchery from which Helen flees, Anne Bronte wrote her masterpiece to reflect the fragile position of women in society and her belief in universal redemption, but scandalized readers of the time.”

Because we all know about Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but what about Anne Bronte’s Tenant Of Wildfell Hall? Now is a fantastic time to explore more of the Bronte’s works.

21. The Great Gatsby

“The story is of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his new love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920’s.”

Cos what better way to celebrate the 2020’s than taking it back to the Roaring 20’s?

Review: The Women At Hitler’ Table

Thank you to the team at HarperCollins for gifting me with this novel. I have not been paid for this review and all opinions are solely my own.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

WWII has been well-documented in historical fiction, so much so that it feels every aspect of it has been explored in many ways, each so different from the other you still learn something new each time. The Librarian Of Auschwitz, for example, told the tale of Dita, a real-life Jewish prisoner of the notorious concentration camp who risked her life protecting fourteen books that were hidden in the camp. Tales like these bring forward the individuals that suffered at the hands of the Nazis, ensuring victims are being heard.

While the majority of ‘minorities’ come to mind when we think of the lives lost during this time period, one’ group’ that is often overlooked is the Germans. Not all Germans were Nazis, and many became victims of Hitler’s ugly regime.

The Women at Hitler’s Table explores the lives of a smaller group of people who risked everything during the war: Hitler’s food tasters. They were not known until recently when Margot Wölk told her story for the first time in 2012. It is her account that inspired this novel.

Sadly, Wölk passed before the author, Rosella Postorino, had a chance to meet her, and so these events are not entirely accurate. However, what is included helps paint the picture of the fifteen women who risked their lives three times a day as they tasted Hitler’s food before it was delivered to him. He was paranoid about being poisoned, so women were randomly selected to try his food first – they had no choice in risking their lives.

The most appealing aspect of The Women At Hitler’s Table is that it’s an entirely different perspective of the war. Not only does it tell the tale of unsung heroes, it ties in with the current revelation of remembering the women who fought during the war – as this novel shows, in more ways than one. It’s certainly interesting when the protagonist states, ‘Women didn’t die as heroes.’ I feel that this represents Wolk’s opinion of herself and other food tasters, as perceived by Postorino, as the reason Wolk never shared her story until recently is that she felt ashamed and guilty of what she had done. She never even told her husband. Wolk could have possibly felt then that the group of women risking their lives to protect the Fürhrer – or, more realistically, to survive – were not heroes due to the nature of their task.

What I love most about this book was that none of the characters were likeable for me. There was so much conflict surrounding each person, particularly the protagonist Rosa, as she became involved with Ziegler, an SS Officer, while her husband was missing. While this was a blatant act of betrayal in more ways than one, it’s not hard to tell throughout the novel that Rosa is incredibly lonely. Her parents are dead, her husband Gregor is missing, and any friends she has are seemingly absent from the book, aside from her fellow food tasters. She moved to the country from Berlin, an entirely different setting, making her feel more lost than before.

This applied to the other food tasters as well, as they came from different backgrounds and have different opinions, creating conflict amongst the group – the most prominent example being that not all the women were on Hitler’s side. Of course, one can’t agree with every opinion, meaning that I was continually switching sides as they continued to argue over different things. Yet at the same time, a sisterhood was formed as they support each other through their worst times.

The way relationships are handled throughout the novel was interesting. Almost all relationships were strained, not completely relaxed. I think the most prominent example of this was Rosa’s affair with Ziegler, where it’s plain to see that there was little emotion between them. They’re both lonely and stressed, and that’s as far as it goes. Of course, any relationship with an SS officer is going to be complicated, as evidenced by Jewish Elfriede’s deportation despite Rosa begging him to halt it. He threatens her with a gun, strangles her, they’re both married and have gone through unimaginable experiences.

To start off with, I sympathized with Rosa through and through. But her character changed drastically throughout the course of the novel – understandable but still it didn’t do her any favours. I struggled to connect with her multiple times and strongly disagreed with many of her opinions. For example, when Leni was raped, Rosa was mad at Elfriede for informing the Ziegler and making a big deal out of it, causing more trouble. I suppose at this point in the novel she was very out of tune with herself, but I still think that’s no excuse for a decision like that.

Her changing character is further evidenced when she states: ‘The ability to adapt is the greatest resource of human beings, but the more I adapted, the less I felt human.’ These words strongly indicate how degraded she feels as she continues her work as a food taster. Without feeling ‘human,’ she felt a lack of emotion, hence her growing coldness and distance, such as her anger towards Elfriede for informing officers of Leni’s rape.

After a bad batch of honey causes a scare and Rosa collapses, the officers shut the women in a room for hours, sick staining their clothing and unable to leave for the toilet, resulting in them peeing in buckets. These degrading techniques would be enough to drive someone insane, especially when they’re let out the next morning and ordered to carrying on tasting straight away without cleaning themselves up. It’s a degrading treatment of the women that shows they are nothing but workers, not people.

But it’s a job that allows her to eat properly while the public starve.

Rosa’s growing ignorance does lead to interesting considerations that readers are left pondering. At one point, as she continued to put her head in the sand, she says:

‘I could have known about the mass graves, about the Jews who lay prone, huddled together, waiting for the shot to the back of the head, could have known about the earth shoveled onto their backs, and the wood ash and calcium hypochlorite so they wouldn’t stink, about the new layer of Jews who would lie down on the corpses and offer the backs of their heads in turn. I could have known about the children picked up by the hair and shot, about the kilometer-long lines of Jews or Russians—They’re Asian, they’re not like us–ready to fall into the graves or climb onto trucks to be gassed with carbon monoxide. I could have learned about it before the end of the war. I could have asked. I but I was afraid and couldn’t speak and didn’t want to know.’

The final sentence suggests Rosa’s reluctance to care about what’s happening around her, which can relate to the strict regime Germans were living under, her depression, or a combination of both. She is likely using the former as an excuse. There is also the indication that she is unlikely to care whether she lives or dies, seeing as she certainly doesn’t care about any of the prisoners. 

Furthermore, the sentence ‘They’re Asian, they’re not like us’ shows her using the beliefs of the dictatorship as an alibi – they’re different from the Germans, so the regime has no excuse but to eliminate them. This attitude frustrated me continually throughout. 

The issue with critiquing a book like this is that it’s hard to admit when you’re disappointed with the plot, which sadly I was. I felt like there were many loose ends left untied, like what happened to Ziegler. But of course, this is not through the fault of the author – Wölk didn’t know what happened to her real-life ‘colleagues,’ so Postorino didn’t, so it makes sense that Rosa didn’t either. However, it still left me with an unfinished conclusion.   

Overall, I enjoyed this book, as it blended well-researched history with fiction smoothly, I was able to engage with it, following Rosa’s every step. But it’s not my favourite book. While I liked that most of the characters were disagreeable – it shows that the writer has captivated you enough to feel so strongly – Rosa’s ignorance of these events seriously bothered me.

Saying that, it can be said that this possibly reflects the attitude of many citizens who lived through the war, as those believing in Hitler and the regime who knew about the camps likely turned a blind eye (not all of course.) Just a theory, but it’s an interesting thought.