One of the great things about being a reader is the lives you can live and the places you can go. Seeing as we’re living in strange times indeed, escapism from the comfort of your own home has never been a better idea. But how to read the meaty, worthy tomes, without getting into a hole of worthiness and gloom? Here’s what I’ve been reading, and how I coped with it all.

A really depressing book I read is the novel Anthem by Noah Hawley, and don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely brilliant, but it begins with a worldwide teen suicide pandemic. Kids are giving up and the powers that be, not to mention parents, are terrified as more and more succumb with only the written clue ‘A11’ linking the thousands and thousands of sudden deaths. 

Hawley brings in absolutely everything that’s going on, particularly in America, as reasons for this malaise: climate change, ‘post-truth’, the God King who lost the election (or did he?), Covid-19, big Pharma and oxycodone. It’s too much for the world’s youth and those with parents rich enough to pack them off to wellness centres for anxiety and depression treatment do so. This is how Simon, whose sister Claire killed herself, meets Louise, the Prophet and Duane, and embarks upon an absolutely crazy mission to knock some sense into the world as it goes to hell in a handcart (riots, lost continents, disease, all of the things). 

This isn’t so much an anthem for doomed youth as a wild and epic tale of a youth with nothing to lose but maybe, just maybe, something to hold out for. It was amazing, but you need to brace yourself and have a lovely book to read for afterwards whilst you process it all. 

So what I read next is Batpig: When Pigs Fly by Rob Harrell. Gary Yorkshire is a wee pig who goes to school with his great friends Brooklyn the bat and Carl the fish. All the other kids at school appear to be human but we’re not going to worry about that. 

Brooklyn has nodded off one day (presumably because nocturnal) and Gary plays a grand trick of putting shaving foam on her hand (claw?) and tickling her nose, expecting her to wake up and rub it all over her mush. But no, Brooklyn awakes with a start and gives Gary a good hard nip with her sharp batty teeth. 

Cut to a bit later and strange things start to happen to Gary including the ability to levitate himself and others and a bit of super strength going on. Turns out that Brooklyn is perhaps a ‘little bit’ radioactive. Lovely Carl, who has to pop into the loo (like, in to the loo) whenever he starts to dry out a bit, is terrible at keeping secrets and Gary and Brooklyn try to hide Gary’s powers from him. As with most secret keeping in books, that doesn’t turn out well. 

Anyway, a superhero is born, and of course then a super villain enters the plot and the whole thing is funny and sweet and wildly entertaining. A nearly 50-year-old woman shouldn’t be reading bits of a cartoon out to random strangers and cackling, but hey, I did. 

I then picked up Mim and the Baffling Bully (The Travelling Bookshop #1) by Katrina Nannestad because it’s a slim volume with a perky pink cover and is about books.

Mim is 10ish and her brother Nate is six. They live with their dad in a caravan pulled by a horse named Flossy. Flossy takes them where she feels they need to go and in this first book of the series they’re off to Holland. When they arrive, the caravan door opens and some tingly magic occurs, dividing bookshelves and creating a staircase down to many more books, sofas, a pair of hedgehogs who are nesting in a dictionary, and some bats (not radioactive this time though). 

The story is one of madcap adventures with the children’s bonkers dad and of worrying about important things like kindness and eating delicious cake every now and again, rather than if you have the right shoes. The bookshop has a book for every occasion, even if it doesn’t immediately appear to be the right one. There’s a lamb in this one too, a ram called Daisy who may or may not be able to fly. It’s great.

From Holland, we’re off to Auckland for an epic love story. Shelter by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins (Bateman Book, $34.99) is about Joe and Leo, and it’s as much a love affair with the city as between the two protagonists. 

Joe meets Leo, and after a mating ritual that Leo finds perplexing but inevitable (he’s not queer), the pair move into Leo’s beautiful, tiny home in the grounds of a large property in the heart of Auckland. Life is good, but as time goes on and Joe wants the normal stuff – to meet Leo’s friends, to introduce him to his mum – Leo withdraws and in a bungled attempt not to end but to redefine their relationship, devastates Joe by leaving Auckland.

Leo comes back into Joe’s life eventually, and the re-moulding of their relationship is heartbreaking and beautiful. I was captured by this story – of a young man with so much love to give, of the nooks and crannies of Auckland discovered on magical night walks, by the passion and the yearning to live life authentically.

Whatever life chucks at us this year and beyond, at least we’re safe in the knowledge that there will always be a bloody good book to take us somewhere. Let’s mix it up a bit, go to the dark places, the brooding, romantic places, but make sure to seek out the places where there are ridiculous things to laugh at and cakes to eat. 

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