RE: 40(ish) Books to Read During Lockdown (which aren’t classics)

So there I was, happily scrolling through news articles about books for one of my clients, and I see an article all about books you should read during Lockdown.

Colour me intrigued!

But as I begin to scroll through, I realise something; all the titles are classics (except for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). And then I look at the URL and it says:

…arts-entertainment/books/books-best-greatest-read-you-die-classic-novels-literature-austen-orwell-dickens-mantel-a9255191.html

‘Classic Novels to Read Before You Die’ has become ‘Books to Read During Lockdown‘.

Now this bothers me because, even as someone who enjoys reading Classic Literature, I understand that if you give someone a list of books to read, throwing a long list of classics at them is 1. going to put them off coming to you for a recommendation every again because a. you are obviously a snob or b. they feel intimidated and can’t tell you. And 2. completely ignores the fantastic novels, verse and novellas that have been produced in the last five to ten years.

What about the amazing authors of colour who’ve ONLY JUST had their debut released? What about the amazing LGBTQ+ writers? Disability Rep Advocates? #MeToo Champions? All the wonderful progress the publishing industry has made to be more inclusive? (Although, I’m a realist, I get they (and we as readers) have a long way to go!). You give someone a list with JUST CLASSICS, even Middle Grade Classics, you’re letting your audience know that nothing from recent generations will ever be as good as this. And you’ll be disappointed to find out – you’re dead wrong.

So here’s my 40 books you should read during lockdown (or whenever) that were written in the last 10 years. (Multiple genres, Multiple Age Ranges, Enjoy!).

Instead of Pride and Prejudice, you should read Queenie by Candice Carty Williams. (2019) Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. Pride and Prejudice is 1st and foremost a romance, and whilst Queenie is dealing with modern relationships her way, it echoes a the ‘contemporary honesty of women’ that Jane Austen evokes with Lizzie B. But, you know, more realistically for the 21st Century.

Instead of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, try picking up The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor) by Jessica Townsend. (2017) Morrigan Crow is cursed. Born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for a child to be born, she is blamed for all local misfortunes. The curse means Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday. But, a strange man named Jupiter North appears to take her to a secret, magical city named Nevermoor. Middle Grade reviewers keep coming back to this one time and time again. Wonderful whimsy and fantastic writing, the Nevermoor series is a fantastic read no matter your age.

Instead of Things Fall Apart, prepare yourself for Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (2017). Set in Nigeria, this novel gives voice to both husband and wife as they tell the story of their marriage – and the forces that threaten to tear it apart. Adebayo’s was nominated for the Wellcome Book Prize, Dylan Thomas Prize, Women’s Prize for Fiction, Goodreads Choice Awards and the International Dublin Literary Award. This powerful and poignant novel looks at married life in Nigeria, infertility, the trauma of losing a baby and how far a couple will go to keep their family safe. 10 out of 10, this book will break your heart.

Looking for the teen-angsty-melodrama of Adrian Mole? Try Love is For Losers by Wibke Brueggemann (2020 (I think this may have been pushed back to 2021?) Fifteen-year-old Phoebe thinks falling in love is vile and degrading, and vows never to do it. Then, due to circumstances not entirely in her control, she finds herself volunteering at a local thrift shop. There she meets Emma . . . who might unwittingly upend her whole theory on life. Love is For Losers has all the charm and drama of Adrian Mole, but for a modern LGBT audience. The characters are friendly and warm, there’s Disability Rep and Neurodiverse characters, emotional plot points and the diary style you’ll recognise from other moody teenager books.

Instead of 1984, you should read The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019) “Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” –Margaret Atwood. The Testaments is the sequel to the 1985 Dystopia ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Now a popular TV series on Netflix, The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on Offred, and her life in Gilead, where as the Testaments takes places 15 years after the first book ends. A stunning piece which looks at an established dictatorship and genuinely scary. It was also the Goodreads Choice Award winner for 2019.

Yes, I really wanted to leave Rebecca on the list because I love Gothic Fiction and I haven’t read it yet, so it felt mean taking it off the list. But! Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020) has taken the Gothic world by storm, and is one of the few titles worthy of displacing Du Maurier. After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find – her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger… A far more visceral Gothic than you might be used to, Moreno-Garcia’s take on the genre is designed to shock and awe!

Instead of Great Expectations, try Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. (2021) IN THE YEAR 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. A far more accessible read, Ready Player One looks at the recent industrial revolution of virtual reality, whilst still being fun, fast paced and adventure driven. You can still enjoy secretive benefactors, destructive class status and male protagonists, but with pop-culture references and in-jokes everyone can enjoy.

Instead of To Kill A Mockingbird, try The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017). Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Steve Rose from the Guardian described this book as ‘Fictional, but barely’. All too often we see another Black name in the news, murdered by the police under false pretenses. For THUG’s character Khalil, it’s for the hairbrush they thought was a gun. The Hate U Give is a powerful lesson in institutionalised racism, and the importance of using your voice to speak against it.

Okay, you can keep Wolf Hall because it came out in 2010. But if you’d like some wicked Historical Fiction books, my honourable mentions are:

  • Circe by Madeline Miller (2018) – Greek Mythology contemporised.
  • Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton (2020)A Gender-Swapped and very Sapphic Henry V Retelling.
  • The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014) – 17th Century Amsterdam, Mystery with Magical Realism.
  • The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester (2015) – A Suffragette Mystery.
  • The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory (2019) – Berlin as the wall comes down, and during the Holocaust.

Instead of The Big Sleep, I’d like to recommend My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018). When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. A hundred and one ‘traditional’ murder mysteries a published every year, but this fresh take on ‘blood is thicker than water’ will have you tense from start to finish.

I have almost NOTHING bad to say about Frankenstein, other than I wish it wasn’t 100 pages before anything interesting happened. It looks at an important scientific vs religious question of the time. And whilst that question is still being asked today, and we praise the absolute QUEEN Mary Shelley for posing it, I’d like to suggest An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green (2018). Roaming New York City at 3am, April May stumbles across a giant sculpture, makes a video and uploads it to Youtube. The next day, April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. In a world where infamoy is the right click away, this novel looks at the overwhelming reality. Psychology, aliens, safety and identity are the least you can expect from this novel.

Did you read Wuthering Heights at School? Or because Bella from Twilight did? Either way, angsty teen girls everywhere grew up with OG Love Triangle and it’s a bit played out. Can I suggest instead Hearts Are Jerks by Gabrielle Harbowy (2020). 16 Year Old Alicia’s parents have been in a stable, nurturing polyamorous relationship all her life, so dating boy a boy and girl in high school doesn’t seem like a big deal to her. When Allie crashes the car, her love life crashes next. She’s determined to handle it on her own, and stay true to herself. A Poly-Positive YA, this book is a fresh take on relationships that’s ready for 2020.

Instead of Lord of the Flies, pick up Wilder Girls by Rory Power (2019). It’s been 18 months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. (Yeah I know we’re living our own pandemic, but just go with me on this one.) Pulling Hetty’s life out from under her. But when Byatt, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. Raxter School For Girls is on an isolated Island, and the teachers haven’t survived as long as the students have. This LGBTQ+ novel has a visceral reality that William Golding only ever hinted at. It’s brutal, and wonderful, and the ending may break you. (I still don’t know how I feel about it… but I’m still recommending it to people for that very reason!)

Vanity Fair is a convoluted novel about a young woman trying to find her place in a society that looks down on her. Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson (2017) does that but so much better! Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.Her’s a female protagonist you want to champion from the first page, with authentic familial characters who love and support her in a world that doesn’t want to. I really loved this book and I keep forcing people to read it, so, it’s on the list.

Instead of Midnight’s Children, try Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (2016). Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through shadows or at the back of a wardrobe. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children. Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experience… they change a person. But her adventures at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children has just begun. Part Murder Mystery, Part Alice in Wonderland, this (too short in my opinion) novel is such a great read and (thankfully! because did I mention it’s too short) part of a series which you’ll absolutely love.

For Lolita… I mean. Any book. Pick up any book instead of Lolita. If you want to know about predatory behaviour, sexual abuse and murder just google ‘Hollywood News’. But, I guess, if I had to recommend a book about those topics, Asking For It by Louise O’Neill (2015) is a brutal depiction of the reality modern girls are dealing with. TW: all of the above really. Hardest book I’ve ever read EXCEPT for Lolita which threw me into such a rage I broke the mug in my hand (having made myself a tea to calm down… yeah it didn’t work).

Instead of Jane Eyre, a novel about the expectations placed on women with a side-quest romance story, can I interest you in Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)? Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking. But Xiomara has plenty to say. Poet X us the debut novel by slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo, and written in verse. Each poem is a look into Xiomara’s inner thoughts, and an expression of all the thoughts she can’t communicate to those she cares about. Poignant, powerful and perfect for a modern audience.

Okay… two on the list… Americanah is also within the last ten years. BUT! My honourable mentions for BIPOC Own Voices are:

  • I Am Thunder by Muhammed Khan (2018) – YA Muslim Romance set in London.
  • Born A Crime by Trevor Noah (2016) – Trevor Noah’s powerful memoir about growing up in South Africa.
  • A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow (2020) – Finding your identity in a society that is more prepared to cast you down than accept you.
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018) –  The first African American First Lady of the USA, this is her story in how she helped create the most inclusive White House in History.
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi (2018) – Award Winning Nigeria Orisha Fantasy.

Cold Comfort Farm could easily by replaced by Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019). Teeming with live and crackling with energy – a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood. Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years. This book had me laughing and crying in equal measure. It won the Booker Prize in 2019 for good reason, and is a more realistic depiction of British life than you could ever ask for.

Beloved is a Pulitzer Winner and published in 2004. I’m not giving you a replacement for this one. Give Toni Morrison the time her novel deserves

Instead of Brideshead Revisited, try The Fortunate Ones by Ellan Umansky (2017). In 1939 Vienna, the spectre of war darkens Europe and Rose Zimmer’s parents are desperate. Unable to get out of Austria, they manage to secure passage for their daughter and send her to live with strangers in England. Six years later, the war is over and grief-stricken Rose attempts to build a life for herself. This is not the ‘nostaligic’ glory days of the Golden Era. This is a cruel reality for many, and a test in empathy. I hope you’re up to the task.

Dune is epic, there’s no deny it’s the Game of Thrones of the Science Fiction world. BUT! Have you heard about Red Rising by Pierce Brown (2014)? Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the colour-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he walks all day, believing he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. He discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Leaving Darrow – and Reds like him – are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class. The Red Rising saga has taken the internet by storm, and I can’t find (and I’m not looking for you to break this rule for me) a single reviewer who thinks it’s anything less than incredible.

Butlers and their dip-stick ‘masters’ are a well past their prime. No one is interested in a privilege idiot having the answers handed to them any more. Not with one still in the Oval Office. So I offer you, instead of The Code of Woosters, The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith (2019). Self described as Scandinavian Blanc, vastly different of Scandinavian Noir, we enter the world of Ulf Varg, Detective Inspector in the Sensitive Crimes Department of the Criminal Investigation Authority. Ulf is concerned with odd, but not too threatening crimes, and the peculiar goings-on. From the creator of The No. 1. Ladies Detective Agency, set in Botswana, Mcall Smith’s writing promises levity and comedic relief rather than another Girl With A Dragon Tattoo Scandi-Horror-Mystery. For which I’m greatly thankful.

I haven’t read The Great Gatsby. I know. Tragic. But! Would you like ANOTHER roaring 20’s style book? But this one has the supernatural in it, has won loads of awards and came out in 2012? The Diviners by Libba Bray. Evie O’Neill has been exiled to the bustling streets of New York City. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult. Evie worries her uncle will discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer. This is the start of a fantastic series, and waaaaay better than a book I’ve actively not read. (When a guy you despise tells you he reads it every year because it ‘reminds him what’s important, and nostalgic and so much better than the modern era’ you tend to give it a wide berth).

Instead of A Clockwork Orange, try The Power by Naomi Alderman (2017). Something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly. This intensely feminist novel follows the lives of five people during the lead up to the ‘incident’ that changes our history forever as young women finally have the power over men. Brutal and powerful, and will make you uncomfortable from start to finish.

Put down Tess of the D’Urbevilles and pick up Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2014) instead. We’re done with ‘fridging’ characters, especially main characters, just to show the moral growth of their male counterparts. With her razor-sharp writing and trademark psychological insight, Gillian Flynn delivers a fast-paced, devilishly dark, and ingeniously plotted thriller that confirms her status as one of the hottest writers around. This is an unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Instead of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the seminal novel which became The Blade Runner film franchise, try The Bees by Laline Paull (2014). Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. She finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all. If you thought you’d read every type of dystopia, I ask that you make space to try this fantastic, award winning debut novel.

Instead of The God of Small Things, try Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi (2018). I’ve been falling more in love with every Roidan Presents that I read. 12 Year Old Aru Shah has a tendency to stretch the truth in order to fit in at school. Whilst her classmates travel the world, she spends her Autumn break at the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture, waiting for her mum to return from her latest archeological trip. Is it any wonder Aru makes up stories? From the other that brought us The Gilded Wolves, this Middle Grade is full of Own-Voice’d magic and wonder, Hindu mythology and lots of adventure.

I really didn’t enjoy Heart of Darkness, and I don’t know how much time I should advocate you spend reading about Colonialism in general, so I’d like to recommend Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad (2020). Me and White Supremacy teaches readers how to dismantle the privilege within themselves so that they can stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on people of colour, and in turn, help other white people do better, too.

The Secret History is fantastic, but a more supernaturally led murder mystery you might enjoy is Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (2019). Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Still searching for answers about her past, she arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. Well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players, their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

We can blame L.J. Smith and Stephanie Meyer for taking the dark, brooding vampires and making them angsty boyfriend material. But The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix (2020) is trying to bring back the supernatural thriller vibes of the original Dracula. This novel is a Southern-flavored thriller set in the ’90s, about a women’s book club that must protect its suburban community from a mysterious and handsome stranger who turns out to be a blood-sucking fiend.

How about, instead of Middlemarch, you pick up Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (2014). In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman of color while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today. The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture. There’s no such thing as the perfect feminist, but this nonfiction will have you considering your internalised misogyny and how your interactions form part of a wider picture of feminism.

I have no idea what The Catcher in the Rye is about and when I looked it up on Goodreads I got distracted by phrases such as ‘Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it’. What does that even mean?!? Want a book which is completely accessible, has a teenage protagonist and isn’t going to punish you for wanting to understand it? Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand (2018). Three girls live on an island with a monster who considers them the PERFECT midnight snack. It’s dark, twisted, sapphic and it won’t talk to you like an idiot. I’d really appreciate it if you could read it because I think it’s great.

Instead of The Bell Jar, I recommend All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (2015). Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death. When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries. This is another YA which threatens to break you right at the end, but it’s such a heartfelt and traumatic book that I can’t help but recommend it every chance I get. TW for Suicide and Mental Health struggles.

Anna K by Jenny Lee (2020) is the modern adaptation of Anna Karenina we’ve been waiting for. Dazzlingly opulent and emotionally riveting, Anna K.: A Love Story is a brilliant reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s timeless love story, Anna Karenina―but above all, it is a novel about the dizzying, glorious, heart-stopping experience of first love and first heartbreak.

Instead of Catch 22, try The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne (2015). Brought to us from the same author who broke us with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it tells of Pierrot, an orphan, who must leave his home in Paris for a new life with his Aunt Beatrix, a servant in a wealthy household at the top of the German mountains. But this is no ordinary time, for it is 1935 and the Second World War is fast approaching; and this is no ordinary house, for this is the Berghof, the home of Adolf Hitler. Quickly, Pierrot is taken under Hitler’s wing, and is thrown into an increasingly dangerous new world: a world of terror, secrets and betrayal, from which he may never be able to escape.

I don’t read enough smut to give a true replacement for Dangerous Liaisons (or Cruel Intentions if you’ve seen the Ryan Phillipe film… which you definitely have) but if you’re looking for a compelling ‘Rivals to Lovers’ with Cruel in the title as a giveaway, I’d definitely recommend The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (2018). Now I know this hasn’t been THE book for everyone else but I loved the characters so much that I’m not going to lie, I didn’t try very hard making this leap, you know? Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

Instead of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, I recommend The Island Child by Molly Aitken (2020). The Island Child tells two stories: of the child who grew up watching births and betrayals, storms and secrets, and of the adult Oona, desperate to find a second chance, only to discover she can never completely escape. As the strands of Oona’s life come together, in blood and marriage and motherhood, she must accept the price we pay when we love what is never truly ours . . . This dark, superstition driven, search for identity is a wonderful book dripping with Irish Folklore. Also Molly Aitken is lovely! I’m totally biased.

Instead of The Trial, try picking up The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019). The 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner, this powerful and poignant novel looks at the Civil Rights era and the real story of a reform in Florida. Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is a high school senior about to start classes at a local college. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training”. In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors.

I really struggle with nostalgic novels about any kind of aristocracy (but that says more about me than the novels themselves) so I’d like to recommend you put down The Leopard and pick up The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee (2014) instead. The Land Where Lemons Grow uses the colourful past of six different kinds of Italian citrus to tell an unexpected history of Italy. From the arrival of citrons in 2nd century Calabria, through Arab domination of Sicily in the 9th century, to the earliest manifestations of the Mafia among the lemon gardens outside Palermo, and traces the ongoing links between organised crime and the citrus industry.

And that’s it! You’ve made it to the end! Are there any books on here you’d swap out for something else? Are you going to stay loyal to the Classics list posed by the Independent? Let me know in the comments! Until next time!

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