The best books about isolation

29 authors have picked their favorite books about isolation and why they recommend each book.

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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

By Gail Honeyman,

Book cover of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

I adore a book that manages to be more than one thing at a time, and the way this novel blends the sweetness and charm of awkward humans trying (and failing) to connect, with a mordant, sharp humor, and a backstory that makes you catch your breath is a kind of sorcery. Eleanor Oliphant as a person is not at all fine, actually, but as a character is brilliantly memorable.


Who am I?

I’ve always loved stories about the anti-heroines–messy, brash women who do things in print that I would never dream of doing in real life. I’ve tried to honor the difficult women in my own books, by showing that a heroine’s flaws do not have to be adorable to carry a narrative. My first career was as a reporter for small-town newspapers, during which time I enjoyed confounding my sources who underestimated a petite, baby-faced young woman. Journalism may have been an awkward fit at times for a person raised to be a nice girl (a literal Girl Scout) but it certainly gave me opportunities to practice being an unapologetic woman!


I wrote...

Vivian In Red

By Kristina Riggle,

Book cover of Vivian In Red

What is my book about?

Vivian is a magnetic woman from the past of Milo Short, a famous Broadway producer who thought he had buried her story and memory. But one day, he has a vision of Vivian–impossibly young and beautiful, when she should have been elderly or dead–and the sight fells him on the spot with an apparent stroke. Robbed of his voice by the stroke, the vision of Vivian haunts him while his granddaughter digs for the truth about what he did, and what she meant to him. Vivian Adair was supposed to be polite and demure, supposed to be just an assistant, supposed to respect cultural divides, yet she refuses to be anyone but purely her mercurial, passionate self.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

By Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ott (illustrator),

Book cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I’m 51 and my twin sister and I have always lived together, which some people find peculiar. Sisters Merricat and Constance Blackwood also live together, shut off in infamy after one of them is accused of murdering their parents, aunt, and brother. They spend tranquil days in the remnants of the family estate, a place that was spooky even before the old house burned half to the ground and got ransacked by villagers. Shirley Jackson’s slim novel, one of her lesser-known works, is a primer of introvert goals disguised as a gothic fairy tale. Even though there’s a 50% chance of guessing the “mystery,” you’ll still be surprised when you find out which sister put arsenic in the table sugar.


Who am I?

I spent my early childhood in a rural, isolated, multi-generational household. During summers we rarely saw anyone unrelated to us. My twin sister and I spent our days reading, hiding, and naming our menagerie of barn cats (final count: 36). In my career as a lifestyle journalist, I’ve gotten to interview famous eccentrics ranging from Loretta Lynn to David Sedaris. I live in the North Carolina mountains with my husband, our teenage son, and my aforementioned twin sister. This past summer, a black bear walked the 22 steps up to our front porch and stared in the window, raising his huge paws high in exasperation. 


I wrote...

The Ballad of Cherrystoke

By Melanie McGee Bianchi,

Book cover of The Ballad of Cherrystoke

What is my book about?

These contemporary stories are a sympathetic but unsentimental depiction of life in the touristy part of Southern Appalachia. It’s a lush, enchanting area where the Blue Ridge meets the Great Smokies—and where culture clashes and unchecked gentrification cause social upheaval in a 1.2-billion-year-old mountain range. Yet the stories—having individually appeared in literary magazines from Mississippi to Ireland—are relationship-centered and universal. Characters include a young felon in thrall to his much-older lover, a gig worker with a shady past trying to become a professional baby namer, and a fed-up teacher’s aide who casts her lot with her fourth-grade students. The region’s rich musical history, including old-time murder ballads, is one of Cherrystoke’s unifying motifs.

The Metamorphosis

By Franz Kafka, Stanley Corngold (translator),

Book cover of The Metamorphosis

"One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking from troubling dreams, he discovered he had been changed into a monstrous verminous insect."

What an opening sentence! In my teens I was captivated by the strangeness, the absurdity, the sense of sacrifice, and the surreal, deeply unsettling nature of this tale, and re-reading it again now, I still am.
Gregor loathes his dull job – something so many of us can relate to – but is bound to support his debt-ridden family. Transformed into something monstrous, he is freed of family obligations but has now become a burden.

Despite his metamorphosis, Gregor’s thoughts remain on somehow getting to work and the difficulties his absence will create. His relatives largely respond as if he is ill, with a mix of sympathy and revulsion but no great sense of shock or surprise.


Who am I?

I have a great love of visionary fantasy fiction, metaphysical mystery thrillers, and fiction that doesn’t conform to generic norms, be it novels or film, as well as music and the arts. I’m also passionate about exploring the unknown, the mysteries of the mind, consciousness, and our existence in this unfathomable universe. In that regard, I love to travel. Some of my most recent escapades have included journeys deep into the Peruvian Amazon, Brazil, the Andes, and Mexico, meeting local indigenous folk wherever possible, and participating in shamanic ceremonies and tribal rituals. And lastly, I’m an ardent Formula One fan – something that has not yet featured in my fiction, though it may.


I wrote...

Enchantment's Reach: The Orb Undreamed

By Martin Ash,

Book cover of Enchantment's Reach: The Orb Undreamed

What is my book about?

Enchantment’s Reach is a land torn apart by internal and external conflict. Secrets from the past resurface, religious factions and fanatical cults revive ancient feuds. An unfathomable non-human warrior race musters at the border. A mysterious, powerful being materializes from somewhere deep within the Reach and an enigmatic child seems to hold the key to an extraordinary mystery.

Via intrigues and desperate quests, Issul and Leth, rulers of Enchantment’s Reach, discover their world is not as they had perceived it. Journeying deep within mysterious Enchantment, where no human has ever been, they begin to uncover the true nature of the awakening universe into which they have been born.
Mystery and magic, conflict, intrigue, love, and suspense, all woven into a spellbinding fantasy saga. This book is Volume 1 of 6.

We Need to Hang Out

By Billy Baker,

Book cover of We Need to Hang Out: A Memoir of Making Friends

When I first moved overseas, I hadn’t thought about leaving my friends behind, or what role they played in my life. We had largely spent our lives apart, ever-connected if remote, and that seemed to fit us just fine. Then something akin to culture shock took hold and I needed them more than ever. They were there, in their Zoom boxes, and on telephone calls. I was reminded to check in with them often—to keep the good thing we had going.


Who am I?

As a journalist and author and a young father, I’ve come to seek more vigorously things that make me smile, things I can cherish and appreciate. My most recent book is dedicated to “the troubled, in trouble, and once troubled.” In promoting the book, I’ve often said I still feel fairly troubled—which is true. Demons never die, we just live to learn with them. So while reading the below books I’ve discovered hallowed moments which fill a person to the brim. After each of these reads I felt that I could surmount most anything.


I wrote...

Troubled: The Failed Promise of America's Behavioral Treatment Programs

By Kenneth R. Rosen,

Book cover of Troubled: The Failed Promise of America's Behavioral Treatment Programs

What is my book about?

I knew firsthand the brutal emotional, physical, and sexual abuse carried out at "troubled-teen" programs. I lived it. In Troubled, I recount the lives of four troubled teens on their own scarred journeys through several programs into adulthood. Based on three years of reporting and more than one hundred interviews with other teens, their parents, psychologists, and health-care professionals, Troubled combines harrowing storytelling with investigative journalism to expose the disturbing truth about the massively profitable, sometimes fatal, grossly unchecked redirection industry. Not without hope, I believe Troubled ultimately delivers an emotional, crucial tapestry of coming of age, neglect, exploitation, trauma, and fraught redemption.

What Isn't Remembered

By Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry,

Book cover of What Isn't Remembered: Stories

Kristina Gocheva-Newberry is a natural storyteller. Her narrators tend toward disarming authenticity. They tell it like it is, rather than censoring themselves out of politeness—a habit several of her characters see as problematic and uniquely American. What Isn’t Remembered features a plethora of characters of Russian and Armenian descent, both in the US and in Russia, and depicts their lives as citizens, immigrants, and the children of immigrants. Cultural tensions wind through the book and are tempered by startling moments of tenderness. At heart, the book is about messy relationships and the invisible histories that press and bind. What Isn’t Remembered is the perfect book to sink into on a quiet, rainy day. 


Who am I?

From childhood on, I’ve been drawn to storytellers, especially those who use their imagination to captivate and question. My favorite stories twist and turn, and throw light on the every day to reveal what is inexplicable, weird, wondrous, and often heartrending. My taste runs wide, and I could list dozens of favorite collections. Having released my own debut book of stories during the pandemic, I learned firsthand how difficult it can be to find readers for story collections, especially when those collections are published by smaller presses. For that reason, I’ve chosen five recent debuts from masterful authors I hope more readers will discover. 


I wrote...

How to Walk on Water and Other Stories

By Rachel Swearingen,

Book cover of How to Walk on Water and Other Stories

What is my book about?

In this spellbinding debut story collection, characters willingly open their doors to trouble. An investment banker falls for a self-made artist who turns the rooms of her apartment into eerie art installations. An au pair imagines her mundane life as film noir, endangering the infant in her care. A son pieces together the brutal attack his mother survived when he was a baby. These stories bristle with menace and charm with intimate revelations. Through nimble prose and considerable powers of observation, Swearingen takes us from Chicago, Minneapolis, and Northern Michigan, to Seattle, Venice, and elsewhere. She explores not only what it means to survive in a world marked by violence and uncertainty, but also how to celebrate what is most alive.

The Moth Girl

By Heather Kamins,

Book cover of The Moth Girl

In this diagnosis story, author Kamins chooses to use a fictional illness—lepidopsy—to perfectly emulate the otherworldly confusion and uncertainty of being diagnosed with a disease you have no context for. Suddenly, everything changes for Anna. Nothing makes sense. It’s disorienting, uncomfortable, and terrifying. I loved how the book shows the character figuring out how to navigate this new life step by step by misstep. Despite the fictional illness, Anna’s journey feels incredibly real.


Who am I?

A big motivation for writing Cursed was what I saw as a dearth of authentic disability and chronic illness rep in books for kids. Where were the characters who were angry, messy, scared? Where were the kids in real pain—physically, emotionally, socially—who maybe weren’t surrounded by supportive friends and family and maybe didn’t handle their diagnoses with grace? When I was first diagnosed with juvenile arthritis at thirteen, I was all of the above—and then some. I’ve identified as disabled for 30+ years and am active in various disability groups and spaces. It’s my pleasure to champion kids’ books with authentic disability and chronic illness representation. 


I wrote...

Cursed

By Karol Ruth Silverstein,

Book cover of Cursed

What is my book about?

I have this pathetic disease. Never mind what it’s called. Life doesn’t play by the rules, so fourteen-year-old Ricky decides she won’t either. Ricky’s rules allow for cursing, cutting school, and lying to the Disaster-Formerly-Known-As-Her-Parents. That is, until her truancy is discovered and she’s facing the threat of having to repeat ninth grade.

Loosely drawn from the author’s experience of being diagnosed with juvenile/arthritis as a young teen, Cursed is funny, frank, and full of f-bombs. An unsentimental take on the “sick kid” genre, it won the prestigious 2020 Schneider Family Book Award which celebrates “the artistic expression of the disability experience” in books for kids and teens.

Big Dead Place

By Nicholas Johnson,

Book cover of Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica

There is no book that better captures the unique human culture present at modern Antarctic research stations than the late Nicholas Johnson’s Big Dead Place, a frank, funny as hell, and at times savage chronicle of a year working support at McMurdo Station. Like my sister, who winter-overed at South Pole Station, Johnson worked in the galley, but it was the bureaucratic nonsense, present even at the farthest reaches of human civilization, that caught his incomparable eye for absurdity.

As I wrote South Pole Station, Johnson’s wry, searingly intelligent voice was always in my mind. To me, he is the epitome of the non-scientist drawn to the world’s most unforgiving workplace: a wry, brilliant journeyman whose humor had a razor-sharp edge but who cared deeply for the work he did and the people with whom he did it. This is my favorite book about Antarctica.


Who am I?

I’m a Minnesotan, so I thought I was a cold-weather badass, but it wasn’t until my younger sister winter-overed at South Pole Station in the early 2000s that I realized that Minnesota is a balmy paradise compared with the ice chip at the bottom of the earth. Her adventures at 90 South inspired my interest in Antarctica, the history of how humans interact with extreme and dangerous natural environments, and the social dynamics of a community trying to survive in the most remote location on the planet. That interest grew so intense that I ended up spending four years researching and then writing a novel set on the seventh continent—South Pole Station.


I wrote...

South Pole Station

By Ashley Shelby,

Book cover of South Pole Station

What is my book about?

Do you have digestion problems due to stress? Do you have problems with authority? How many alcoholic drinks to you consume a week? Would you rather be a florist or a truck driver? These are some of the questions that determine if you have what it takes to survive at South Pole Station, a place with an average temperature of -54°F and no sunlight for six months a year. Cooper Gosling has just answered five hundred of them. Her results indicate she is abnormal enough for Polar life.

Unmoored by a recent family tragedy, Cooper’s adrift at thirty and—despite her early promise as a painter—on the verge of sinking her career. So she accepts her place in the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Program and flees to Antarctica, where she encounters a group of misfits motivated by desires as ambiguous as her own. Then a fringe scientist arrives, claiming climate change is a hoax. His presence will rattle this already-imbalanced community, bringing Cooper and the Polies to the center of a global controversy and threatening the ancient ice chip they call home.

Haunted

By Chuck Palahniuk,

Book cover of Haunted

This is a unique entry in that the cursed place is a framing device, for this collection of mostly disturbing tales. For his first-ever collection of short stories, Palahniuk brings his wretched cast of characters to a haunted house, where each in turn offers his or her own demented tale. They don’t all work, but a number of the stories really stick with you, and this spooky old house at the center of it ratchets the intensity up another level—it’s not a static situation they are in, there, so the plot progresses to its own warped conclusion on this front as well. 


Who am I?

I’ve been a lifelong horror reader, really since first stumbling onto Stephen King in the 9th grade. There’s something about that genre that has held a particular fascination for me through the years, probably because the best works are some combination of suspenseful, well-written, and cathartic, as they really get your mind racing as to what you might do yourself in a given situation. If you’re lucky, they might even have something to say about the human condition as a whole. But given this prolonged interest and exposure to horror, it’s only natural I would eventually progress to giving it a stab myself.


I wrote...

The Doom Statues

By Jason McGathey,

Book cover of The Doom Statues

What is my book about?

Though dormant for many years, when an artists' retreat in the country reopens, a group of creatively inclined strangers cannot resist its charms. None of them find it odd that the locals steer clear of the place - at least not initially. Long before the property's dark past reveals itself to them, however, they begin to realize this retreat offers more than they signed up for. That creatives are perhaps ill-equipped for dealing with the quote-unquote real world, and that they may not escape this place any more than they can themselves.

Flowers in the Attic

By V.C. Andrews,

Book cover of Flowers in the Attic

This is a book about a mother who hides her children away from her new husband so that she can win an inheritance.

I read the book when I was at an age I believed all mothers loved their children selflessly so the story of a mother betraying her children traumatised me. I sobbed my way through it and recall my younger brother asking me why I just didn’t put the book down if it was making me so sad. It was a question to which to date I have no answer.  Although it was fiction because of the way it touched me, I learnt that sometimes greed can make people justify anything. 

I would recommend it for being very emotive! And if one needs a good cry.


Who am I?

My name is Ellen Banda-Aaku a writer from Zambia and the UK. I have been writing – mainly for young adults - for many years. My latest YA book The Elephant Girl which I have co-authored with James Patterson is due in July 2022. A memorable book for me is one that haunts me long after I turn the last page even though it’s fiction. Whilst the books mentioned here are very different, I have linked them in that they have child protagonists who go through a lot of suffering through no fault of their own. That is what makes them tearjerkers.


I wrote...

Patchwork

By Ellen Banda-Aaku,

Book cover of Patchwork

What is my book about?

Lusaka 1978. Pumpkin is 9 years old. Her fashionable mother is the queen of Tudu court, but beneath the veneer of respectability that her father's money provides lies a secret that threatens their whole world – the tall, elegant Totela Ponga is a drunk. And when pumpkin’s father – the wealthy businessman JS – discovers her mother’s alcoholism it sets in motion a chain of events that come to define the rest of her life. 

Weaving together the stories of three generations of women, this novel is a patchwork of love jealousy and human frailty set against a backdrop of war and political ambition. This book is about how childhood experiences influence who an adult becomes. Patchwork was shortlisted for the Commonwealth book prize in 2012. 

The Queen of the Tambourine

By Jane Gardam,

Book cover of The Queen of the Tambourine

Misguided do-gooder Eliza Peabody lives in wealthy South London. In her middle age, Eliza is not just dedicated to volunteering in charities but also to volunteering her unsolicited advice to her neighbours in notes through their letterboxes. The book is consistently reviewed as both hilarious and poignant, but my memory of it above all includes one scene that was neither of those things. Instead, it seared me. The reveal crept up on cats’ paws, and I wasn’t at all prepared, which made the moment true for me, and unforgettable. If I read it when it came out in 1992, I would have been 26 years old. I must read it again now, at 56. No doubt I’ll remember the funny bits this time.


Who am I?

Literary agents often say they are looking for books about ‘quirky’ female protagonists. I’m more entertained by female characters who feel real to me. When I write, I make myself uncomfortable a lot of the time, trying to express the many ways people both disguise and reveal the truth. I blame my devotion to my parents for this because when I left home in Massachusetts for college in the foreign land of Indiana, studied for a year in China, then studied in Italy, then worked in Taiwan, then moved to Japan, and later to Singapore, I wrote them copious descriptive, emotional letters. My parents are gone now, but in a way, I’m still doing that.


I wrote...

Lillian on Life

By Alison Jean Lester,

Book cover of Lillian on Life

What is my book about?

Missouri-born Lillian has lived through the post-WWII decades of change in Munich, Paris, London, and, finally, New York. She has grappled with parental disappointment, society’s expectations, and the vagaries of love and sex. Now in her late fifties, she’s waking up next to her married lover and taking stock.

Lillian on Life paints an honest portrait of a hot-blooded woman whose reflections reverberate originally and unpredictably. Charming, sometimes heartbreaking, and never a stereotype, Lillian offers her own brand of wisdom. You won’t soon forget her.

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