Lockdown reading for escapists


Tl;dr – I’m not that into State of the World books – here are some fiction, science and on-writing books I’ve enjoyed

As someone who cares about world poverty, human rights and social change, you may be forgiven for thinking that I spend my leisure time reading about world poverty, human rights and social change.

Mmmmm, I’m don’t.

I have read many such books, hell I’ve co-edited one. But I mostly read those while employed, or to learn skills that can be applied to voluntary community organising. Not for fun! Reading them feels like work, so they are read during designated public service time, ideally when I’m being remunerated. Turning such pages does not liberate me from this cruel world or my mad self. I envy people who can read about –  let’s say totalitarianism – learn something, and just get on with their day.

Even Ursula le Guin and Dan Hancox’s acclaimed works lie dormant on my shelf, once gifted by some of my favourite persons. Alas, the only attention they receive is a guilty sideward glance every once in a while. I’m sure they are excellent books, but I’m attracted to a different breed of novel, and mostly short ones. I seek out the tantalisingly macabre*. Apart from that, I read popular science titles and selected works on the craft of writing.

If you’re finding more free time during Coronavirus lock-down and are seeking out escapist reading recommendations, great! I hope this provides an alternative to all the state of the world analysis/pandemic fiction books people are rushing to recommend (how?!?!) . For the rest of us who struggle to read regularly at the best of times and/or may have  a lot more childcare and chores on our hands, I hope my favourites at least pique your interest and present ideas for future indulgences.

Macabre fiction

Some of this is so deliciously ikky, but also quite claustrophobic. Skip this list if you find this terrifying (in a bad way).

The Lullaby – Leila Slimani
Horrific. I love it.

Perfume – Patrick Süskind
Scent based plot set in 18th Century France. What’s not to like.

The Nothing – Hanif Kureishi
So funny, so wrong, so sad, so good.

The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan
Gifted  as a secret santa. Best office present ever.  Maybe don’t read this one if you’re far away from your four kids during lockdown

Milkman – Anna Burns
Totally bat-shit and brilliant depiction of The Troubles from the inside. Anna Burns is an absolute genius and one of my literary heroes

Four excellent novels by Asian women writers:

The Vegetarian – Han Kung
I was hooked from the first page. Who is this asshole and why is his wife still with him and why did she become a vegetarian????

Braised Pork – An Yu
I love it when a bizarre death gets the plot rolling.

Ponti – Sharlene Teo
I can smell the eggs fish and the Singapore humidity-induced sweat just thinking about it. Great anti-hero too.

The Suicide Club – Rachel Heng
What if suicide was banned and you had to want to live forever?

Not-so macabre fiction

The Break – Marian Keyes
Do NOT dismiss Marian Keyes. The Chick Lit category is just a socially sanctioned way of continuing to label women’s work as frivolous and unimportant. Her characters are great and so relatable, and the plot riveting. I cried, I laughed, will she take him back or not goddamn it! We’ve all been there. And if like me, you dont care for online shopping or handbags, the backdrop for her novels will be other worldly.

Middle England – Jonathan Coe
I love Jonathan Coe. Reading this Brexit area inspired book today will truly feel from a bygone era

Season of Migration to the North – El Tayeb Saleh
Arabian Nights in reverse. The Denys Johnson-Davis translation is amazing.

The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCollough 
An epic which takes place over six decades. Totally not the sort of book I’d pick up, it was sent to me as part of the international book exchange, and wow, I loved it. Total escapism into early 20th century down-under. Be warned: In the Virago edition Maeve Binchy gives away a key plot line in the introduction as if we’re all born in 1950 and have seen the TV series, madness. It’s not Romeo and Juliet, woman!


The Organised Mind – Daniel Levitin
This book made such an impact on me, I quoted it a zillion times in my piece on facebook addiction.

The Beautiful Cure – Daniel M Davis
Dramatically told story of our immune system and how it works.

Behave – The Biology Humans at Our Best and Worst – Robert Sapolsky
I borrowed this hefty 800 pager on the promise that every page there will be at least one ‘wow’ moment. The premise is that every behaviour has multiple causations ranging from one moment to one day to centuries before the behaviour occurs. It is pretty damn good, once you acclimatise to the american author’s sense of humour.

Creative Writing

I write fiction. Here are four books I’ve found exhilarating and incredibly helpful

On Writing – Stephen King
The second section of this book is the best guide to writing fiction, and the best written guide, there is out there hands down. You don’t need to have read any Stephen King to appreciate this work of art.

Into The Woods – How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them – John Yorke
I was at the till about to pay for my own copy of On Writing , when the young guy at the till’s eyes lit up and asked me if I could wait a minute, just one minute while he runs to get me another book that I must have if liked On Writing. He came back hyper ventilating with a copy in his hand, trying to speak in gasps on why this was a great book. I was so moved I bought it. He was right, a must for people who love stories.

Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande
About the psychology of creative writing. I remember being on the tube, what I was wearing and where I was going when her central thesis hit me. A game changer.

The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron
Definitely on the hippyish unlock-your-inner-creativity end of the scale, but if you arrive at it’s pages with an open mind, you may find it frees something inside you to make art.

*With one major exception: I refuse to consume or promote any media which normalises the abuse of women by men.