Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

In times of unprecedented strangeness, it’s only natural that we cling to what we know will make us feel better. Books provide all manner of things – ideas, adventure and escape – but the cosy familiarity of a well-loved story can bring immeasurable comfort. Here, the Penguin.co.uk team share their favourites, in case you’re after a new, decidedly uplifting read.

I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)

I've lost count of the times I've turned to the wonderfully eccentric Mortmain family for comfort. Featuring handsome American bachelors, love triangles, a summer solstice and a casual moonlit swim in a moat, Dodie Smith's first novel is the perfect escapist adventure. The beautiful (and quintessentially English) scenery reminds me of summer holidays in Cornwall, and the funny, honest observations of the narrator –17-year-old aspiring author Cassandra – are endlessly entertaining and relatable. I Capture the Castle is a charming, elegantly melancholic coming-of-age story for anyone who’s ever wondered whether they’d rather live in a world that’s Jane Austen with a touch of Charlotte Brontë or Charlotte with a touch of Jane.

Chosen by Francesca Pymm

The Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo (2001)

There is a scene towards the end of The Emperor's Babe – Bernardine Evaristo’s novel in verse about a reluctant teenage bride living in the Roman stronghold of Londinium, AD 211 – in which our heroine Zuleika hosts a poetry evening which quickly unravels into an orgy. Not, however, before a man in a silk cloak called Pomponius Tarquin stands up to read from his 100-poem collection called ‘The Day My Cat Died’. We’ve all been there.

The Emperor's Babe is a work of richly evocative historical fiction that also dances, nimble as a concert pianist’s fingers, across notes of modern day satire, coming-of-age romance and dark comedy. Evaristo’s ‘Nubian knock-out’ and her friends are the perfect vessels for her inimitable style, and the book is both a riot and a hoot from the first page to the last. Dipping back into it never fails to make me smile.

Chosen by Sam Parker

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (2012)

In times of crises it is love that shines through, an emotion Jane Austen captures so perfectly whether it is between families, siblings, friends or – of course – the dashing hero and heroine of her novels. Although I treasure each of her books, it is the story of the Dashwood sisters, whose tight bond sees them through the grief of losing a beloved father, financial ruin and heartbreak, that I turn to most. Despite their troubles, the sisters find solace in each other and the small pleasures in life, whether it is a blustery walk among the Devonshire hills or discovering a well-stocked library in their neighbour’s house, not to mention their own happy endings. 

Chosen by Sarah McKenna

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane (2012)

When seeking comfort, I often turn to escapism and return to my roots. As someone who grew up in the Highlands of Scotland, that means solitude in the outdoors – something Robert Macfarlane captures best. The Old Ways is a pilgrimage through place and time where he pays homage to those who walked before him, wandering glens, well-worn tracks and ancient pathways.

As with all of his books, the beauty in Macfarlane’s work is that it offers so much more than traditional travel writing. Instead, The Old Ways is more of a meditation, as he documents each place with a poetic wonder. It’s beautifully sedate, and will unwittingly whisk you off to a hinterland.

Chosen by Donna Mackay

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1953)

I first read this book as a teenager and have come back to it every few years since because a) I can read it in a weekend and b) it reheats my cynical heart. It’s a lovely story, swilling with salt and sweat, about growing old, loneliness, friendship and fish – more or less in that exact order.

Hemingway tells of an old man who goes out to sea to do battle with a giant marlin. His sole friend is a young boy. But in the end, the fish fight is his alone. The book is so lyrically written, as you'd expect from Hemingway, awash with lines that have followed me through life like wise seagulls. The Old Man and the Sea reminds me that what gets us through life and all its mad twists and turns, good and bad, is hope. Oh – and that good things come to those who bait.  

Chosen by Matt Blake

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

Anne is a plucky heroine who never fails to make me smile, whether she's getting into trouble with her best friend Diana, dreaming of her perfect dress (puffed sleeves a must) or in the midst of a heated rivalry with Gilbert, her friend and eventual love interest.

Anne of Green Gables is a book I loved as a child, and whenever I reread it as an adult I'm reminded of that childish optimism and hope that we should all try to recreate in our adult lives. Beyond that, the book reminds me that family (whether you share DNA with them or they’re found family) and friends can offer hope and love through the darkest of times. It makes me laugh, restores my faith in the goodness of people, and makes me a little bit braver every time I read it.

Chosen by Sarah Shaffi

Beyond the Deepwoods by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

It’s been (gasp) nearly 20 years since I first picked this book up as a pre-teen and it’s one I have read again and again. It follows a young boy called Twig who was found abandoned as a baby by a family of cautious creatures called woodtrolls. They raise and care for him, but Twig learns he is not one of the family he sets out to find his true kind. The beauty of the Deepwoods causes Twig to stray from the safety of the path, however and he ends up encountering all different kinds of creatures – good and bad.

Although a children’s novel, Beyond the Deepwords has all the elements I enjoy in a story: adventure, fantasy, horror and self-discovery. Coupled with Chris Riddell’s beautifully detailed line drawings that my younger self used to attempt to copy (without much success), Beyond the Deepwoods is always my go-to when I need cheering up.

Chosen by Imogen Rayfield


Heartburn by Nora Ephron (1983)

It takes a particular kind of humour to strike the right note in times of turmoil, but Ephron’s dry irreverence never fails to make me laugh – the tone is set straight from Heartburn’s opening line: 'The first day I didn’t think it was funny'. Her not-quite biographical story may, ostensibly, be about an unfaithful husband and the breakdown of a marriage, but packs a far more meaningful punch. To witness our heroine Rachel overcome heartbreak and betrayal to take life into her own hands – all narrated in Ephron’s deliciously confessional patter - proves invigorating and inspiring. Plus, the whole thing is entwined with recipes for simple, irresistible things such as 'four minute eggs' and Linguine alla cecca. Divine.

Chosen by Alice Vincent


Little Nemo

Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay (1927)

In the early 20th Century, many newspapers’ Sunday editions came with gigantic, pull-out comic strip sections. Kids and adults alike would spread the ‘Sunday funnies’ out on the floor or table to immerse themselves in worlds that ranged from whimsical and otherworldly to more domestic and reflective of the times.

Among the best was Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, which depicted in gloriously colourful, Art Nouveau-influenced detail, the fantastical dreams of a young boy who, at the end of every strip, awakens upon falling out of bed. If you’re feeling blue, there’s nothing like McCay’s magnificent dreamscapes to whisk you away from this world and drop you somewhere transcendent.

Chosen by Stephen Carlick

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