The best books to help you survive desert islands, life, and everything

Olivia Levez Author Of The Island
By Olivia Levez

The Books I Picked & Why

The Panopticon

By Jenni Fagan

Book cover of The Panopticon

Why this book?

This is the book which most inspired Frances’ voice in The Island. 15-year old Anais is troubled, loving, brilliant, and creative. She is also at a young offenders’ institution named the Panopticon after being found covered in blood at a crime scene. A birthday present from my brother, this book is so powerful, moving, and evocative. It’s written in spiky Midlothian. It’s raw. It’s warm. It’s brutal.

No matter what life throws at her (and there is a lot) Anais finds a way to survive with humour and defiance. I just loved it.

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The Quiet at the End of the World

By Lauren James

Book cover of The Quiet at the End of the World

Why this book?

It's 2109, and Lowrie and Shen are the youngest humans on the planet after an unknown virus made everyone sterile. Raised by a compassionate octogenarian community, they spend their days mudlarking in futuristic London. I love dystopian sci-fi, and this one is gentle, thoughtful with a slow-burn tension. It was difficult to choose a contemporary read, but this one has special resonance because of the disturbing times in which we’re living. There’s enough distance, though, because of the otherness of the setting. A beautiful focus on community values – which is what we all need right now.

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Dirt Music

By Tim Winton

Book cover of Dirt Music

Why this book?

I just love this book. Again, it’s set against such an evocative landscape – this time in Western Australia. It tells the story of a tentative love affair between a reckless poacher and the wife of a wealthy landowner – and the inevitable fall-out. There’s even a soundtrack to go with it – Winton’s a musician too.

The writing’s so pitch-perfect that I had to keep stopping to scribble phrases down. It’s that good. Why is it about survival? As well as Luther Fox, the poacher, struggling to get over the tragedy of his past, the last third of the book focuses on his walkabout up north to Coronation Island, where he deliberately shipwrecks himself. Cue the wilderness: scavenging, hunting, sheltering. True, haunting, survival in its rawest sense as he battles to redemption.

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By Gary Paulsen

Book cover of Hatchet

Why this book?

I was recommended this by a friend when I was a teacher. It’s the perfect survival teaching book. Brian is the original Bear Grylls – abandoned alone in the Canadian wilderness with only a hatchet for company. With only one main character, it’s intense and dramatic – another book that influenced The Island. Rare for a children’s book, you’re left uncertain as to whether the main character will survive, whether it will be a happy ending…

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Marianne Dreams

By Catherine Storr

Book cover of Marianne Dreams

Why this book?

A survival book list should definitely contain at least one treasure from your childhood. This one never left me and it’s a book I return to for its haunting, beautiful, disturbing depiction of Marianne, the little girl who dreams what she draws. Battling against a mysterious, unnamed illness, she escapes from the daily monotony by drawing a house, and a boy, and some sentinel stones. Slowly, this dreamworld becomes her reality. As the children struggle to break out of their house, surrounded by them, the stony watchers, the reader is dimly aware that it mirrors their fight to recover from their sickness. Lyrical, very scary, and a cliffhanger ending like no other, it is deservedly a classic.

I first read it when I was 10, the exact same age as Marianne (the story begins on her birthday), and I have reread it for the umpteenth time forty years later. There’s nothing like returning to childhood favourites to get some much-needed avoidance from our reality of plague and pandemic. Although this story is anything but cosy…

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