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

Olivia Levez Author Of The Island
By Olivia Levez

Who am I?

Both my books have a survival theme. Whether it’s foraging for mushrooms, wild camping, or trying to survive lockdown, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between endurance and creativity; what happens when humans are pushed to their limits. After teaching English in a secondary school for 25 years, I decided that I wanted to write a book of my own. I hid away in my caravan in West Wales, living off tomato soup and marshmallows, to write The IslandThe books on this list represent the full gamut of survival: stripping yourself raw, learning nature’s lore, healing, falling, getting back up again. Ultimately, to read is to escape into story. To read is to survive.


I wrote...

The Island

By Olivia Levez,

Book cover of The Island

What is my book about?

Frances is alone on a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. She must find water and food. She must survive. And when she is there, she also thinks about the past. The things that she did before. The things that made her a monster. Nothing is easy. Survival is hard. And so is being honest about what happened before. Slowly, Frances learns to survive and see that the future is worth fighting for.

The Island is a gripping and thoughtful story about a girl who didn’t choose the life she has but digs deep to become the person she always wanted to be. All is not lost but some things are hard to find.

The books I picked & why

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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.

The Panopticon

By Jenni Fagan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Panopticon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists

Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car. She is headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can't remember what’s happened, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and Anais is covered in blood. Raised in foster care from birth and moved through twenty-three placements before she even turned seven, Anais has been let down by just about every adult she has ever met. Now a counterculture outlaw, she knows that she can only rely on herself. And yet despite the parade…


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.

The Quiet at the End of the World

By Lauren James,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Quiet at the End of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Lauren James is a genius at building tension." SFX Magazine

"James is one to watch." Kirkus Reviews

How far would you go to save those you love? Lowrie and Shen are the youngest people on the planet after a virus caused global infertility. Closeted in a pocket of London and doted upon by a small, ageing community, the pair spend their days mudlarking and looking for treasure - until a secret is uncovered that threatens not only their family but humanity's entire existence. Now Lowrie and Shen face an impossible choice: in the quiet at the end of the world,…


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.

Dirt Music

By Tim Winton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dirt Music as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Georgie Jutland is a mess. At forty, with her career in ruins, she finds herself stranded in White Point with a fisherman she doesn't love and two kids whose dead mother she can never replace. Her days have fallen into domestic tedium and social isolation. Her nights are a blur of vodka and pointless loitering in cyberspace. Leached of all confidence, Georgie has lost her way; she barely recognises herself.

One morning, in the boozy pre-dawn gloom, she looks up from the computer screen to see a shadow lurking on the beach below, and a dangerous new element enters her…


Hatchet

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…

Hatchet

By Gary Paulsen,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Hatchet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This award-winning contemporary classic is the survival story with which all others are compared—and a page-turning, heart-stopping adventure, recipient of the Newbery Honor. Hatchet has also been nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read.

Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson, haunted by his secret knowledge of his mother’s infidelity, is traveling by single-engine plane to visit his father for the first time since the divorce. When the plane crashes, killing the pilot, the sole survivor is Brian. He is alone in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but his clothing, a tattered windbreaker, and the hatchet his mother…


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…

Marianne Dreams

By Catherine Storr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marianne Dreams as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I could get in,' Marianne thought, 'if there was a person inside the house. There has got to be a person. I can't get in unless there is somebody there. 'Why isn't there someone in the house?' she cried to the empty world around her. Marianne is no child prodigy at drawing. Confined to her bed with an illness she finds a pencil in her great-grandmother's workbox, but the house she draws is as unsatisfying as always - like a shaky doll's house with grass as unlike anything growing as ever. But that night she dreams and rediscovers her drawing…


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