18 March 2020

Books to keep you company in self-isolation

by Katie Smart From the Agents

It’s important that we all take care of ourselves in this time of self-isolation. What better way to keep your spirits up than to read, read, read …

From much needed comedy to comforting classics, sweeping fantasy and the latest must-reads, these recommendations from the literary agent teams at Curtis Brown and C&W will provide you with the perfect company in these difficult times.

Jonny Geller, Curtis Brown

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams – author of Stoner – this is in a way a better book (if that is possible). I was completely absorbed by this tale of a young man’s gap year in 19th Century cowboy country. Visceral, philosophical, gripping and beautifully written. A classic.

If you really want to curl up to a long and absorbing read I would recommend David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. He gives you six novels in one.

Anna Davis, CBC

For me this is definitely the time to read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. I loved Wolf Hall very very much – and though I was slightly less keen on Bring Up the Bodies, I’m nonetheless very excited to get my hands on the final instalment of Mantel’s incredibly ambitious Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I’ve ordered it from The Bookseller Crow, my favourite local bookshop, which is posting out books to its customers. In a general sense, do think of your local bookshops when you’re lining up your isolation reading, and check to see if they will send books out to you. We all want our beloved bookshops to still be here when this current situation is over, and this is a tough time for small businesses.  

Alice Lutyens, Curtis Brown

Saturdays at Noon by Rachel Marks – because it is smart, compelling, funny and so wise.  It has a voice that calms you right down and hooks you in. The sort of voice we need from Boris Johnson!

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – because it is totally absorbing and ‘cannot put down’ and it is so cleverly written but pacey too.

Sophie Lambert, C&W

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny because we still need to laugh in these difficult days.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts because it will transport you to somewhere completely different and capture your imagination.

Gordon Wise, Curtis Brown

If we are ready for Knives Out in an epidemic situation, then The Bone Fire by SD Sykes it is. The quarantiners are locked in, but the killer is in their midst.

The Decameron was born thanks to Boccacio’s associates heading for the hills from plague-ravaged Florence. Can we tell a few weeks’ tales to each other, and make them classics?

Katie McGowan, C&W

We Begin at the End, the new novel by Dagger Award winning author Chris Whitaker.  So much more than a thriller, this book will grab you by the heart with an astonishing ferocity. I sobbed my way through the final chapters! This book will bowl you over from the very first paragraph and won’t leave you until long after you have read the final pages.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – a superb book with the titular Olive’s life framed through stories told by family, friends, acquaintances.  Her acerbic wit and general grumpy demeanour is laugh out loud funny at times, but her story is both moving and somewhat tragic.

Jennifer Kerslake, CBC

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Seventeen-year-old Cassandra is isolated herself – living in a ruined castle in the middle of the English countryside in the 1930s with her father (a novelist with writer’s block), her step-mother Topaz (an artist fond of walking naked in the rain) and her romantic sister Rose. They are impoverished and have to rely on home-grown vegetables to survive, but as the book progresses and Cassandra grows up, she finds herself longing for that time of bread and butter and honey for tea, reading by candlelight and not thinking about the world beyond the castle. Honest, wry, funny, charming and contradictory – Cassandra is a dream. I defy you to read this opening and not want to read on! ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it. The rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.’

I am also excited to escape into Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth (a former CBC student). The novel isn’t out until 28 May, but Hazel’s agent Lucy Morris has very kindly given me an advance copy. It’s about a teenage girl who goes missing, having run off with her teacher one hot summer, and promises obsession, sex, secrets and betrayal.

Sophie Baker, Curtis Brown

I’d suggest Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny which also happens to be 99p on Kindle at the moment. It is funny and insightful and a wonderful distraction from the news. But don’t just take my word for it, Jojo Moyes, Nina Stibbe, Nigella Lawson and Kate Atkinson are fans.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. A few reviewers have called it a masterpiece and I agree. The writing is fantastic and the depiction of the powerful bonds between siblings is wonderful and emotional. It has just been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and was on most of the ‘Best of 2019’ lists.

Becky Brown, Curtis Brown Heritage

W. G. Sebald’s extraordinary The Rings of Saturn (1995) permits you to travel in every possible sense – through time, through myth, through a life, through… Suffolk. Transportive and meditative, I can’t think of a better book to help you leave where you are and go somewhere better (and infinitely more interesting!)

Diana Tutton’s glorious and hilarious Guard Your Daughters (1953) is what would’ve happened if Jane Austen had collaborated with Dodie Smith – think I Capture the Castle meets Pride and Prejudice, set just after the Second World War. We meet five eccentric sisters who are pent up in the countryside under the watchful eye of their manipulative mother. It offers escapism in its purest sense, and is often side-splittingly funny.

Niall Harman, Curtis Brown

In fiction, Deborah Moggach is at her witty best with The Carer, a cracking timely novel full of characters that leap right off the page. For non-fiction comfort reading and armchair travelling, you can’t beat Bill Bryson. I’d recommend the trio of Notes from a Small Island, Neither Here Nor There and A Walk in the Woods to see the UK, Europe and the Appalachian trail in the US, with Bryson being the ultimate travel companion. And, if you’re seeking to traverse the globe, I’d throw in Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days for the same reason.

Caitlin Leydon, Curtis Brown

Mark O’Connell, Notes from an Apocalypse. Almost unnervingly timely, Mark O’Connell’s investigation into those preparing for the end of days is an intellectually rigorous and comic insight into our current climate.

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish. An open-eyed look at the underbelly of Queens, New York, this is a consuming modern love story, a tale of trauma, migration, war and class.

Happy All the Time, Laurie Colwin. Following two old friends as they navigate love and heartbreak in 70s New York City, Happy All the Time is a charming and heart-warming story of human relationships – a restorative balm for doubt and uncertainty.

Ria Cagampang, CBC

I’m currently letting myself get lost in Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. A charming little novel set in Tokyo about a café that lets you travel in time – before the coffee gets cold! It’s a really fantastic piece of translated fiction so far!

I also haven’t stopped thinking about Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other since I read it towards the beginning of the year. It’s such an ambitious and sweeping look at Britain both present and past and she weaves all of these stories so intricately. It’s at the top of my recommendations list to everyone at the moment.

Katie Smart, CBC

Recently, I tore through Mona Awad’s Bunny. Magical realism, gore, humour and cutting social commentary – all told in a compelling and witty voice.

For pure escapism, I’d highly recommend CBC alumnus Struan Murray’s debut middle grade novel Orphans of the Tide. This is an adventure that will sweep you along with the force of the tide.

If you want to focus on your own writing while you’re isolating at home, do take a look at our online courses.

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