1) The Lord of the Rings
Okay – so, I’m sort of cheating here.
I realise that The Lord of the Rings is technically 3 books…but all of my copies come as a single cover-to-cover edition. So… I’m counting The Lord of the Rings as a single entry in this list!
At over 1000 pages, Tolkien’s journey will keep you hooked throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, no matter how long we are confined to our homes.
Anyway, if you’ve never read (or watched) The Lord of the Rings before, it’s essentially a fantasy tale about a Hobbit (smallish person with hairy feet who loves breakfast) who inherits a magic ring that belongs to an evil dark lord. As it turns out, this ring is potentially world-ending and has to be destroyed.
Frodo, said Hobbit in question, seeks to destroy this ring and goes on an adventure with men, elves, dwarves, and wizards. It’s a classic tale of good vs evil, overcoming differences with one another, and – truly – about the virtues of friendship.
There is a beauty in Tolkien’s prose that few others in the fantasy genre have been able to capture. Take my favourite passage in the trilogy, for example:
“Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee–but almost the touch was a caress.
For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.”
The Lord of the Rings is packed with emotion and tragedy, but it also exhibits the best of people, such as Samwise Gamgee’s optimism and courage, and Captain Faramir’s goodness and sincerity. It’s the perfect book for your lockdown reading list!
The Lord of the Rings is pure, unfettered escapism. And let’s be honest – I think we all need that right now.
2) The Count of Monte Cristo
Some stories are about revenge.
And then there’s The Count of Monte Cristo. It is the definitive tale of revenge and – I promise – will be the most epic book you’ll read all year.
It might even take you all year, such is the scope of Alexandre Dumas’s tale!
In brief, an up-and-coming seafarer named Edmond Dantés is betrayed by three men, leading to life imprisonment on an island prison off the coast of Marseille. During his time in prison, Dantés becomes a student of an elderly monk named Faria and undergoes a change, pledging to exact revenge against those who ruined his life.
Not unlike Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Dantés climbs out of his own dark place and makes his way back into the light. Donning the mask of the elusive ‘Compte de Monte Cristo’, he mingles with upper class Parisian social circles and consorting with Italian gangsters.
And at circa 1200 pages, The Count of Monte Cristo is a lengthy but thrilling adventure. It’s a proper page turner and I’d highly recommend it as your next read.
Kim Slater’s Smart is a bit of an outlier on my lockdown reading list.
It is neither epic in scale, nor a lengthy read. In fact, you’ll probably get through it in a few sittings. It’s also aimed at a slightly younger audience.
Smart is set in modern-day Nottingham – where I grew up no less! Subtitled ‘A mysterious crime, a different detective’, our main character is a schoolboy named Kieran Woods who seeks to solve a murder that is not being investigated by the police.
A bit of an outcast, through no fault of his own, Kieran doesn’t fit in with the expected norms of society. In fact, it’s heavily implied that Kieran is on the autism spectrum. As someone with an incredibly talented brother who has learning difficulties, Smart can be upsetting at times. It goes to some dark places.
However, the novel is from the point-of-view of a child, so naturally it’s also very witty. Early on, Kieran reflects that:
“A long, long time ago, someone decided what word to use for every single thing there is. For a wooden thing you sit on, they decided that word would be CHAIR. But what if they decided it would be called a B*****D? Then you would sit on a B*****D and call someone a CHAIR if you hated them.
‘That’s true,’ Mrs Crane had said when I’d asked her about it at school.”
Kim Slater does a great job of writing from the perspective of a child. Kieran is a charming young man who embraces his differences (not to mention his love of drawing!) and it’s thrilling to see him overcome the sorts of challenges that many us will never have to face.
Why is Smart on this list?
It’s a feel-good romp that leaves you feeling hopeful and optimistic.
Innocent and humorous, with a satisfying conclusion, Smart is feel-good crime fiction novel for a younger audience, but one you should absolutely read next.
Speaking of crime fiction…let’s move on to my next recommendation!
4) The Woman in White
The Woman in White is possibly one of the cleverer pieces of literary fiction I’ve read in a long time.
An early example of detective fiction, with an ample dose of gothic horror thrown in, Wilkie Collins takes the reader down a rabbit hole that has more twists and turns than a M. Night Shyamalan movie.
Abduction, madness, mistaken identity, and notable shifts in narrative perspective – The Woman in White is a smart commentary on the inequality of marriage rights in the 19th century.
In brief, our hero, Walter Hartright – an artist with a strong sense of justice – falls in love with Laura Fairlie; a ‘pure’ virtuous woman, who just happens to have a significant dowry.
The problem is… Laura is already promised to another man. Sir Percival Glyde.
Couple this unhappy marriage of convenience with a missing woman, almost identical to Laura, and a portly Italian Count with a sinister charisma, and you have quite an unfolding mystery.
Marian Halcombe is the real star of this novel. She’s smart, belligerent, resourceful, forthright, and somewhat reminiscent of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. Big fan!
In short, Marian is the OG feminist of the Victorian era.
It’s unfortunate that she and Laura are often compared as opposites – one fair and virtuous, the other unattractive but really quite good at getting things done.
But hey, it was the Victorian era.
You should absolutely add The Woman in White to your lockdown reading list. It’s a genuinely fascinating detective fiction novel, and the shifting perspective between protagonists is a really neat way of revealing plot elements gradually.
If you’re not into Victorian novels, and I really can’t twist your arm, then do give the BBC television adaptation a watch!
5) The Passage
I’ll be up front with you.
The Passage is the first instalment in a post-apocalyptic vampire trilogy.
Stick with me.
It’s a book of two halves – the first (shorter) part is set in ‘contemporary’ America, prior to a pandemic that wipes out most of humanity (sorry – too soon!).
The second part, 93 years later, focuses on the fallout from this pandemic. Specifically, people have been turned into vampiric-like creatures, with only seemingly a few bastions of survivors remaining.
What links the two sections is Amy Bellafonte – ‘the girl from nowhere’. A child who speaks few words, but could well be the difference between survival and extinction.
Why is The Passage on my lockdown reading list? Well, It’s quite simple.
Justin Cronin, the author, is a very good world builder and creates some very memorable characters (shout outs to Wolgast, Lish, and Sara!).
The Passage also strikes a curious balance between horror and thriller. At times, it is genuinely chilling and you’re fearful of turning the page. At other times, you cannot get enough.
I did have some issues with the abrupt time jump – suddenly you’re jerked 93 years into the future and introduced to a raft of new characters in very quick succession. It was a little alienating.
But, once I become familiar with Peter, Lish, Sara, Michael, and company, I actually found the second section of the book to be the strongest and most enjoyable part.
I’m yet to read the sequels, The Twelve and The City of Mirrors, but writing this reminds me that I must get around to reading them!
How many of these have you read? What’s on your lockdown reading list? Leave a comment below!