Penguin authors Julia Samuel, Charlie Mackesy, Wim Hof, Flo Perry and more on maintaining mental health during lockdown
Penguin authors Julia Samuel, Charlie Mackesy, Wim Hof, Flo Perry and more on maintaining mental health during lockdown

When things get difficult, the right book can provide just what you need, whether that’s commiseration, solitude, sweetness – or maybe just a good laugh. Here, a selection of our authors reveal the book that never fails to lift their spirits.

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, chosen by Jane Fallon

I don’t know if it’s because Nina Stibbe and I both moved to the same area of London at the same time – and at around the same age – but reading the wide-eyed, sweet, and above all funny letters in Love, Nina that the young author sent to her sister transports me straight back to that age when it seemed as if the whole world was out there waiting if only you knew what to do with it. It feels impossibly archaic now that the main form of communication with family once you left home back then was the letter, or an occasional payphone call with beeps going off and much fumbling for change every couple of minutes. It was a different world, but one that is so comfortingly familiar. Gorgeous.

Jane Fallon is the author of Queen Bee.

Idiopathy by Sam Byers, chosen by Avni Doshi

I’m one of those obnoxious people who doesn’t find anything funny – stand-up and sitcoms make me desperately uncomfortable. But Sam Byers’ Idiopathy is one of the funniest books I’ve read. How does he do it? The sadness in the novel is a perfect counterpoint to the comedy. The story is about three old friends who come together during the outbreak of a cattle epidemic. The idea of this kind of crisis felt comfortably distant when I read the book years ago, but in the current circumstances hits closer to home. The writing is sophisticated, the characters believable, and Byers handles absurdity as well as anyone.

Avni Doshi is the author of the Booker Prize-shortlisted Burnt Sugar.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, chosen by William Boyd

No novel is perfect. The form doesn’t permit perfection – it’s too random, too complex and multi-layered, too close to the overall messiness of human lives. But Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938) is as close to perfection as a comic novel can be. It is Waugh’s masterpiece, I believe, and very funny – and contains the funniest chapter in all English literature, I would claim. It is supremely well-written, an affecting love story and a brilliant portrayal of the cynical world of journalism. And it ends in triumph for its unlikely hero, William Boot, whose ordered world – turned wildly upside down by his adventures in Fleet Street and Africa – finds its reassuring order again, as all true comedies must. An enduring delight and a triumph.

William Boyd is the author of Trio.

Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman, chosen by Frances Cha

I have several ‘comfort books’ that I return to, but the one I want to introduce here is Elinor Lipman’s Then She Found Me. It’s about a quiet high school Latin teacher in Boston named April who is quietly and happily living her life, when her biological mother contacts her from out of the blue and inserts herself into April’s life. The mother is a television show host – flashy, tacky, attention-seeking, flirty and altogether the opposite of shy, quiet April who is at first completely turned off by her new mother and her tall tales, but becomes charmed in spite of herself. The book is funny, sweet, wry and has an unlikely love story also woven in on the side. It is such a gem of a book!

Frances Cha is the author of If I Had Your Face.

Riders by Jilly Cooper, chosen by Clare Pooley

When we were in the midst of the first lockdown, and I wanted to be reminded of simpler times, I turned to Jilly Cooper’s Riders, which I originally read as a teenager, furtively and under the covers. Rupert Campbell-Black, with his sneering mouth and muscular thighs, was my first true love.

It’s impossible to be miserable in Rutshire, a place where everyone speaks in puns and double-entendres, unless they’re quoting Shakespeare and Byron. All problems can be solved with a cooked breakfast, a gin and tonic or a hearty bonk in a bluebell wood or loose-box. Rutshire men are cads, bounders and terribly politically incorrect, but by God they look good in a pair of tight white jodhpurs.

In Jilly Cooper’s world, no one ever takes anything too seriously, except for their horses and their dogs. It’s the very best place to spend a pandemic.

Clare Pooley is the author of The Authenticity Project.

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, chosen by James Bailey

I came to Jean-Paul Didierlaurent’s The Reader on the 6.27 late, but I think I read it at just the right time: when I needed cheering up amid all the doom and gloom of 2020. The novel, translated from French, tells the story of Guylain Vignolles, who works at a pulping factory. Every day he sits on the 6.27 train and recites aloud the pages he has saved from the pulping machine. One day he discovers the diary of a woman who feels as lost in the world as he does, and he sets off on a journey to find her. This is both a love story, and a story about a love of language and literature. It is funny, uplifting, and hopeful. I don’t often read books more than once, but this is one I’ll definitely be keeping on my bookshelf for the next time I need a pick-me-up.

James Bailey is the author of The Flip Side.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend, chosen by Patrick Freyne

I think the book that always cheers me up, when I reread it every ten years or so, is Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4. I read it first when I was around 13 3/4 myself, and while I always found it really funny, it was only when rereading it as an adult that I realised how tender and kind it manages to be at the same time. I think Adrian Mole was the first unreliable narrator I ever encountered, and it primed me to realise that all of us are unreliable narrators, really, and that that’s actually quite a hopeful thing. Adrian’s narration is hilarious and poignant because who he hopes to be isn’t matched by the mundane and often sad things that are happening around him. And yet, it still manages to be a humane and optimistic book. Sue Townsend was a genius but more importantly, I think, she was a good person. 

Patrick Freyne is the author of OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, chosen by Marianne Cronin

I need to tell you about Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, and as soon as you read the premise, you’ll understand why. On the hills of Ireland, a farmer is murdered, and his sheep set about solving the crime. Farmer George’s sheep are unusually intelligent because he has spent his evenings reading them detective stories to help them get to sleep. Three Bags Full doesn’t give me ‘hope’ via themes of overcoming adversity or a triumph over sadness – its hopeful aspect, to me at least, is that it exists. A world where there are books about sheep solving crime is a world that fills me with hope. Oh, and one of the sheep is called Miss Marple. 

Marianne Cronin is the author of The One Hundred Years of Lenni & Margot.

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Image: Alicia Fernances/Penguin

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