Recommended Reading for a Pandemic

If You Actually Want To Read Books About A Pandemic

I can’t face reading pandemic fiction at the moment, but judging by the sales of pandemic films and novels, lots of people don’t feel the same way, so here are some suggestions:

  • Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven was one of my top ten books of the decade. It deals with the aftermath of a grim pandemic with a much greater mortality than coronavirus that sweeps the Earth, killing the majority of its population. However, the bright side of Station Eleven is the society that it imagines on the other side of this catastrophe, following a travelling theatre company across Canada. It also brings to life the fictional comic-book world of ‘Station Eleven’, which both parallels the events of the novel and exists as a significant space of its own. Ultimately, like a lot of good fiction that takes a disaster as its starting-point, I’d argue that this novel is less about A Pandemic and more about how art relates to reality.
  • Naomi Booth’s Sealed is, again, ostensibly about a terrifying skin-sealing disease that is sweeping Australia, but actually has more to say about the relationship between humans and the environment. It’s a brilliant eco-horror that follows Alice, who is heavily pregnant with her first child, and her partner Pete, who leave Sydney for a town in the Blue Mountains because they believe they will be safer there. But the idea of escaping to a ‘cleaner’ rural location soon turns out to be a dangerous fantasy. If this sounds like your sort of thing, please consider ordering Sealed directly from the publisher, Dead Ink, a small press who are struggling right now.
  • Finally, the first (and best!) novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, deals with a creepy space plague caused by a mysterious protomolecule that reassembles biological matter. Our protagonists have to stop this spreading through a space station. The Expanse’s writers have so far failed to fully deliver on the promise of this first novel, but it works as a gripping stand-alone.

If You Want To Read Books Where People Face Up To Bad Things That Are Not Pandemics

This is basically where I’m at right now – I want books where the characters face serious social and economic disasters but still manage to survive – so here are some ideas:

  • Hanna Jameson’s thoughtful and engaging The Last focuses on a group of people trapped in a remote hotel in Switzerland after the world is devastated by a series of nuclear attacks. Jon, our narrator, starts investigating a suspected murder; the body of a young girl is discovered in one of the hotel’s water tanks. While some of his fellow survivors try to persuade him of the futility of this quest, Jon seems to be driven by the conviction that life still matters even in the face of this disaster, and that society can be rebuilt. Ultimately, and despite its Lord of the Flies-esque set-up, The Last is very optimistic about human nature.
  • I’ve recently been raving about Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Skyand now I wish I hadn’t raced through both novels and the associated short stories so quickly! This series imagines an alternative version of post-war American history where a meteor hits the Earth, setting off a spiralling environmental disaster that leads the US to rapidly accelerate its space programme, believing that humanity’s future now lies on other planets. Our narrator, Elma, whose voice is so funny and addictive, was a pilot in WWII and is still a brilliant mathematician; she is determined to become one of the first ‘lady astronauts’. I’ve never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting.
  • I’m hesitant to indulge any of the poor Second World War analogies that have been floating around, but Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is just such a good novel. One of my top ten books of 2015, this Blitz-set book focuses on four young people doing their best for the war effort. Mary and Tom are trying to keep London’s education system running; Alistair is fighting in Malta; Mary’s resentful friend Hilda stands on the sidelines. It sounds like it’s going to be saccharine, but it’s actually hilarious, heartbreaking and intelligent.
  • John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes sees an alien invasion from the sea threaten civilisation. Both genuinely tense and enjoyably ridiculous, this, in my opinion, is Wyndham’s best novel, spookily anticipating later climate change fiction. It’s also notable for being just as sexist as the rest of Wyndham’s science fiction, but, unlike his other books, if you read between the lines you can pretend that the male narrator is completely unreliable and his wife is actually running the show.
  • I’ve also returned to my first love in fiction, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. I devoured this long-running US kids’ series as a pre-teen and teenager. It focuses on five teenagers who are given the ability to morph any animal they can touch to fight an alien invasion, and ends up in some very dark places. At their core, Animorphs are anti-war novels for the post-Cold War generation, and one day I am going to write something serious about them!

If You Want Books That Aren’t About Any Really Bad Things, Including Pandemics

Personally, I’m finding these kinds of novels difficult at the moment, and can’t summon up many original ideas, but if you want something truly escapist, here are some suggestions:

  • Anything by Robin McKinley, my favourite fantasy writer; my top comforting recommendations are her two retellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and Rose Daughter, and her feminist dragon-slaying epic The Hero and the Crown.
  • In a similar vein, Naomi Novik’s fairytale-inspired Uprooted and Spinning Silver are both beautifully escapist, although I thought Spinning Silver was far superior. They’re both stand-alones, so you can read them in any order.
  • If you want something that’s both contemporary and escapist, I recommend Erica Ferencik’s thriller The River at Night; four female friends, all in their forties, are left stranded on a dangerous white-water rafting trip through the Allagash Wilderness in Maine.
  • YA can also be a haven: my top YA picks right now are Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat, which refreshingly foregrounds queer female teenagers, and Bridget Collins’s YA-esque The Bindingwhich is set in an alternative past where bookbinders bind people’s memories into individual volumes.

What comfort reads, of any kind, would you recommend? I’d especially love to hear about books that fall into the second category.


29 thoughts on “Recommended Reading for a Pandemic

  1. I still can’t decide whether reading about pandemics is a good idea or not! I won’t be revisiting Quammen’s Spillover (though maybe I will later, once all this is over), but I already happened to have Nemesis by Philip Roth out from the library — it was on the Wellcome shortlist some years back and is about a polio epidemic in New Jersey in 1944. So I have started that, and I also got Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders off the shelf on the recommendation of some fellow book reviewers in a Facebook group, but haven’t opened it yet.

    At the other end of the spectrum, I was thinking of finally trying some Wodehouse, and I’ve been racing through my first Agatha Christie since I was a young teen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not really turning to pandemic novels as a first resort, but I can see why people find it reassuring – I think all the fictional pandemics I’ve ever read about have had a higher mortality rate than coronavirus.

      I loved Year of Wonders, until the ending!


  2. One of the top movies on Netflix right now is Outbreak, this decades-old movie starring Dustin Hoffman about a freaking virus that is killing people. I mean, what are we thinking? That movie scared the pants off of me when it came out!

    Okay, about Leah: I want to read Leah on the Offbeat, but I don’t really feel like reading Simon’s book first. Can I watch the Netflix movie about Simon and call it good? Can I skip that book altogether?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! I’m very much enjoying the different sorts of recommended reading people are sharing these days. I’ll be busy with the Women’s Prize longlist for a while yet, but I’ll be adding several of your pandemic and “people face up to bad things” recs to my TBR list… though hopefully the real one will be on the downswing by the time I get to them! I have already read Station Eleven and The Last, and loved them both. I’ve also had Ling Ma’s Severance on the brain lately, and Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, as pandemic books I’ve enjoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this list. I’m all for full-on pandemic novels… I feel like they’d be good at keeping my attention (which is a bit scattered lately). Sealed sounds great. So does The Last. Both are new to me and both are going on my list! I’m glad to hear you liked the Cleave so much, because I actually have that one!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have been toying with the idea of rereading Station Eleven, but the “bad things that aren’t pandemics” segment is definitely where I seem to be at right now. I’ve heard so many good things about The Calculating Stars!

    In a meta sense, I’m also finding Olivia Laing’s nonfiction really helpful right now because it’s giving me an alternative mental framework for considering and living in a public health crisis. She writes a lot about Aids, and the art that was made within and in response to that long tragedy. Just finished a proof of her newest book, an essay collection called Funny Weather (it was meant to be published in April but goodness knows if that will go ahead). I’d also recommend The Lonely City, which explores the intersections of isolation, social media, the creative impulse, and urban living, in a way that feels painfully appropriate for our current moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve had my eye on The Lonely City for a while. Thank you for reminding me of it, it might be just the right time!

      Honestly, if I hadn’t literally read The Calculating Stars a few weeks ago, I’d be reading it right now. It may not be the greatest literary work but it is perfect for a pandemic!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve not been able to read Doomsday Book for years because it has a similar initial plot setup to my novel-in-progress (though mine’s not a pandemic novel!) and I didn’t want to be accidentally influenced. I’ve almost finished the latest edits on my novel so perhaps now is the time!


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