source: Unsplash

On a quiet evening in late March, I sat with bated breath as Boris told the nation that we would be heading into a full-scale lockdown—pubs and shops would shut, schools would close their gates. Suddenly, I became (fortunately) familiar with exactly what a furlough was…

But what was I to do with all of this time on my hands? Arguably, being an English student, my response was entirely cliché and altogether predictable. I shut out the world around me and spent my days devouring books of almost every age demographic and genre (and with a mammoth university reading list, I’d say my response was entirely justified).

Tucked under my arm that fateful March evening was a novel almost comfortingly more horrifying than reality at the time: The Outsider by Stephen King. Set in a small American town (aren’t they all?), Detective Ralph Anderson finds himself leading a baffling investigation into a sickening murder. The case should be a simple open-and-shut one; DNA found at the crime scene points towards Little League Coach Terry Maitland. But Terry Maitland has a clad-iron alibi… Reviewing the renowned King of Horror’s 59th book (according to Wikipedia at least; yes, I did count) is slightly intimidating for a humble student of literature like me. However, King’s writing prowess is almost palpable in the pages of this novel, it grabs a hold of you from the first page and does not let go until the very last. King builds tension and supernatural suspense with seemingly effortless ease, combining the preternatural with the stylistics of a police procedural in what becomes a truly chilling tale that, addictive as it was, I had to put down every night before it got dark.

I said top three and this might be classed as cheating because, technically, I’m recommending both Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo and its sequel, Crooked Kingdom. This Young Adult duology is pure, unbridled joy and a riot of fantasy fun. Set against the backdrop of Ketterdam, a fantasy city inspired by the Netherlands, Kaz Brekker and his team of misfits are challenged to pull off a high stakes heist with catastrophic consequences should they fail. Bardugo’s writing in these books it stunning; emotive and funny, fast paced and meaningful. She breathes life into this dangerous fictional world she has created and fills it with some of my favourite fantasy characters—characters that are wonderfully diverse but also flawed, driven by their own selfish desires and grappling with their own demons. It makes for an adventurous and surprisingly emotional read; perfect for forgetting the apocalypse that seemed to be unfolding outside the confines of my home.

While escapism undoubtedly became almost a necessity for me during lockdown, there came a moment when the world seemed to collectively open its eyes to the systemic racism oppressing ethnic minorities in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. I felt a need to ground myself again in reality; fantasy escapism and middle-class Victorian woes took a backseat. ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas had been sat on my shelf since its release in 2017, unfinished, after it prompted me to burst into tears under ten pages in. The Young Adult novel follows 16-year-old Starr as she grapples with being the witness of her friend’s murder at the hands of a police officer and the social unrest that follows. The novel explores not just race and police brutality, but what it means to be a Black minority as a teenager, as well as providing genuine belly-laughs and heart-warming insight into exactly what Black joy and culture looks like. Though aimed at a teenage audience, this novel is one for everybody and anybody; it’s a triumph.

Hetta Johnson

Hetta Johnson (she/her) is a contributing writer and Junior Editor for Cultures at The Oxford Blue. She is in her second year reading English Language and Literature at Worcester College and, when not wandering Oxford or with her nose in a book, can be found in the countryside of Northamptonshire.