The Literary Clinic - prescriptions

Prescriptions to soothe symptoms and raise spirits.

For those suffering from ennui, bile, choler, melancholy, or an excess of daytime TV due to the coronavirus pandemic, from May 2020 until early January 2021, Dr Sandie Byrne was on hand to select a few leaves from her Physick Garden of Books and provided customised recommendations to sooth symptoms and raise spirits. 

Where possible, prescriptions included freely available online resources: books, poems, spoken voice, plays and more.

The Literary Clinic is now closed for new prescriptions, however, you can browse through a wide range of previous scripts below.


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Katherine from California is looking for a book from centuries past - or about the past - suitable for reading aloud.

Dr Byrne suggests you could take turns in being the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales
You could also try some medieval lyrics, for example, 'Alisoun' or for an atmospheric chivalric adventure with a temptress and a beheading game try Gawain and the Green Knight. 

Sue from Cheltenham is missing her friends and has also missed a trip to Russia and one to Northumberland. She says that 'travel and the long long beaches of the North East are always in my head'.

The Doctor suggests that perhaps some armchair travel should help. She suggests Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Journals; Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.

Moving farther forward in time, you could try Freya Stark, The Valley of the Assassins; Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons; Jan Morris in Venice; Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia; Bill Bryson, Down Under;
Raza Rumi, Delhi by Heart; Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana or Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence.

For your longing for Northumberland, Dan Jackson, The Northumbrians: North-East England and its People: A New History, or Joe Cornish, The Northumberland Coast.

Kent who lives at the edge of the ocean in Asbury Park and loved Toilers of the Sea requests a book with a seafaring theme.

This was difficult for the Doctor, as she gets seasick in a deep bath. Fortunately, her very lovely and sea-worthy colleague sent out a literary life-boat:

Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum is an absolute classic of seafaring and adventure. As is, Shackleton's Boat Journey by Frank Arthur Worsley. There is also D.H. Lawrence's poem 'Whales Weep Not'.

Don't forget fictional and historical tales of wanders on the whale-path, such as Frans Bengtsson, The Long Ships, tons Michael Meyer and William Fitzhugh and Elizabeth Ward, Eds, Vikings; The North Atlantic Saga and Homer’s Odyssey of course. Happy armchair sailing.

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Andreas from Milan is looking for something to soothe his worries and anxiety about the near future.

For overcoming anxieties and fears, have a look at this article about self-help books from the Guardian. It may be useful, especially as it identifies works that the author regards as tosh, but does recommend others. 

You may also want to try Helen Saul, Phobias: Fighting the Fears which has been recommended to us, as has Claire Weekes, Self-Help for your Nerves - an older but still useful text, and Peter R. Breggin, Guilt, Shame and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions.

Finally, some recent fiction that might lift the spirits: Clare Pooley, The Authenticity Project or Nina Stibbe, Reasons to be Cheerful.

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Attention span

Jacqueline from Melbourne can't concentrate at the moment and is in need of a page-turner or a recommendation for short stories.

If you then build up your stamina to short stories, try James Joyce, Dubliners - these are linked stories set in Edwardian Dublin that critique the different kinds of paralysis that afflict the times but are also songs of love-hate to the city and its people.

There's also Katherine Mansfield's short stories, or for something contemporary/modern we have enjoyed Susannah Rickards, Hot Kitchen Snow.

Ken from Vermont USA, is suffering from a temporary, terrible bout of limited attention span. He requests 'great literature I can read that's perhaps 3 pages max'?

As your attention span is understandably short at the moment, try flash fiction and browse some of these sites:, or

If that doesn't work, you might consider poetry. A short but condensed text that encourages deep concentration but for not very long might be the answer. 

Pauline from Edinburgh writes to say she can't remember what day it is, and would like some help with restlessness.

Dr Byrne recommends Shakespeare's Sonnet 30. While a meditation on memory, its lovely language and form may distract from and soothe anxiety, and its regularities will enable Pauline to learn it by heart and gain new confidence in her memory.

New mum, Emma from Devon is looking for a gripping story about new mothers in other times and different cultures.

Congratulations on your new arrival! Here are some suggestions for reading about other new mothers.

For novels, the Dr recommends, Maggie O'Farrell, The Hand that First Held Mine; Sarah Moss, Night Waking; Elisa Albert, After Birth; Aimee Moll, The Perfect Mother; Jennifer Weiner, Little Earthquakes.

Or, for something historical you should try, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich A Midwife's Tale; Min Jin Lee, Pachinko; Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood; Janet Benton Lilly de Jong.

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Stuart from Swindon, UK is looking for something Sci-Fi that will blow his mind away and give him a new perspective on life.

For classic science fiction, the Doctor suggests Isaac Asimov, the Foundation series, Frank Herbert, the Dune series. Or, take a look at more recent works from Iain Banks, Consider Phlebas, Dan Simmons, Hyperion, Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem, Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon or Anathem.

There is an interesting article on snobbery about science fiction which you can read here.

Maryam from Karachi, Pakistan is in need of something with mythology, so that she can 'escape to another world (I have been inside my home for weeks!)'

For fiction with some imaginative mythology, you might try some recent retellings of Ancient Greek stories: Madeline Miller, Song of Achilles, Amanda Elyott, The Memoirs of Helen of Troy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Laviniaor or Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad. Norse myth is at the centre of Joanne M Harris, The Gospel of Loki.

If you don't mind some violent scenes, you might enjoy Peadar O'Guilin's The Call, which is set in a contemporary alternate Ireland in which the Sidhe and their fairy realm are real.

Tash from Perth, Australia requests something that will distract her from social media and get her hooked on reading again. She notes that she used to love reading fantasy and war novels.

We hope that these fantasy novels will wake your inner book worm.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; Frank Herbert, Dune; Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time series; Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight; Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch; Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials series. Anything by Terry Pratchett keeps us turning the pages.

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Nan from Belfast, USA requested a well-researched historical fiction 'so that I can learn something as well as follow a tantalizing, challenging story'.

For something Roman-British, Dr Byrne recommends Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset. Alternatively, Rosemary Hawley Jarman's We Speak no Treason explores medieval life, as does Arianna Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death which includes some violent crimes, but is well researched.

Other historical novels covering the Reformation, Elizabethan and French Revolution eras include C.J. Sansom, The Shardlake Series and the Wolf Hall series and A Place of Greater Safety, both by Hilary Mantel.

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Lauryn from Frisco says that she'd like something to make her laugh that is NOT romance. Her favourite writers are Neil Gaiman and Erin Morgenstern.

If you can get it, Penelope Fitzgerald, At Freddie's is a riotous description of a rubbish stage school with a cast of inept misfits.

If you enjoy eccentricities, verbal play, and the brittle society of the 1920s, try Every Waugh, Vile Bodies, or for a more modern kind of comedy of miscommunication and the clashing of cultural tectonic plates, David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day.

As you like Neil Gaimon, you might enjoy Terry Pratchett's comic/satiric/fantasy novels, though they are less dark. Also in comic fantasy, you might try Jasper Fforde.

Kathy from Dorchester is in need of something adventurous or humorous that she can read aloud to her husband. She says 'we are both running out of conversation and need a bit of fun!'

For reading out loud, Dr Byrne recommends work that is easily divisible into short sections, and to keep laughter and conversation going, she would recommend anything by P.G. Wodehouse.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has a speaking encyclopaedia that would be good to read aloud.

If you have the acting gene, you could really infuse some atmosphere into ghost stories, perhaps those by M.R. James. Or you could go back to a time when novels were very expensive, and so designed to be shared. Austen, the Brontës, or Dickens would all work well, and either Dracula or Frankenstein could be very dramatic.

Kylie from Sydney is looking for something that will have her in hysterics. 'I haven't read anything really funny in a long time'.

We recommend The Inimitable Wodehouse, or for blacker humour, Saki (H.H. Munro)

Just William is technically a children's story, but it has raised a smile on faces of all ages. 

The doctor also recommends some fiction that people have found uplifting: Clare Pooley, The Authenticity Project; Beth O'Leary, The Switch and Nina Stibbe, Reasons to be Cheerful. Also anything by Terry Pratchett, especially the witches and the night watch series.

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Jane from Melrose is looking for some fiction with a theme of stitching - embroidery, lace making, dressmaking or quilting - 'something where a needle and thread is never too far away from the main characters'.

The Dr recommends some of these: Sarah Bower, A Needle in the Blood (The Bayeux Tapestry), Tracy Chevalier, A Single Thread, Jennifer Chiaverini, Mrs Lincoln's Dressmaker, Gail T. Lemmon, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Liz Trenow, The Forgotten Seamstress, Nancy Moser, The Pattern Artist, or Kathy Cano-Murillo, Miss Scarlet's School of Patternless Sewing.

Chris from Ayr asks: 'Are there any poems about supermarkets, because we’re all obsessed with supermarkets at the moment.'

Dr Byrne believes that Chris needs Wordsworth's 'The World is Too Much With Us'

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Susan from San Antonio has only been able to stay focused on WWII thrillers throughout lockdown, and asks the Dr if she has any favourite books or authors on this topic.

Some non-fiction recommendations from the Dr include Larry Loftus, Codename: Lise; Susan Ottaway, A Cool and Lonely Courage; William Atkinson, Spy Mistress: The True Story of the Greatest Female Secret Agent in World War II.

For fiction thrillers, you could try Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity; Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale; Sarah Waters, The Night Watch; Melanie Benjamin, Mistress of the Ritz or Alan Furst, Night Soldiers series

Lydia from Fremantle, Western Australia asks for a crime tale where she hasn't guessed the ending by the midway point. She also hopes for a lead female character with a bit of 'oomph'.

For a crime story where you haven't guessed the ending by the midway point, the doctor prescribes Stuart Turton's The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

For someone 'fed up with the male dominance in crime fiction' not wanting 'female characters for the sake of it. Female with a bit of oomph': Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl; Sophie Hannah's crime novels; Donna Leon's crime novels; Nicci French, Friday on my Mind.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley's Secret has a fascinating female baddie and Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White has a feisty heroine out to save her sister.

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Amy from London asks the Doctor to prescribe her something about beauty, love and any sort of bittersweet tale about growing up. She also requests some poetry about animals and walking through woodlands.

For something bittersweet about growing up, we recommend Alain Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes.

For poetry about animals, walking through woodlands and/or moments of time or something contemplative we recommend the work of John Clare for Nature Poetry or the Poetry of William Wordsworth for the countryside and contemplation.

The Poetry of Ted Hughes in The Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal, and Moortown Diary for animals.

Kimberly from Illinois is looking for something to get her motivated to wake up early and accomplish tasks. She also requests a poem about bees!

For motivation, perhaps a story based on real-life endurance and humanity amidst inhumanity: Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française (staying human in Paris during 1940-41 - based on real events).

There's an interesting article on motivation, self-help, and looking for perfection here.

Bev James, Do It or Ditch It is slanted towards business, but relevant to motivation generally and perhaps Greta Thunberg, No one is too Small to Make a Difference.

For poems about bees, there's Rudyard Kipling, 'The Bee-Boy's Song' or Emily Dickinson's 'The Bee'.

Sarah in Oxfordshire wants poems to send to house-bound patients who would normally come into a day hospice, stating that she has started a list but would love a few more ideas.

Dr Byrne says: ‘I would recommend some Seamus Heaney, who was a lovely man, a light in the world, and a great poet, but his poetry is in copyright, so beware of websites which post poems illegally.

There are many poems in the public domain which you can share legally and which could be suitable for your purposes. Here are some to bring the season to house-bound people. Try Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'Spring' and 'The Windhover' – poems 9 and 12 on this Project Gutenberg page; John Clare, 'Young Lambs'; William Wordsworth, 'Lines Written in Early Spring'; and Thomas Hardy, 'I Watched a Blackbird'. (I am assuming that The Independent published this legally.)'

Patricia from Vancouver who is looking for an escape requests a novel set in rural England or France.

We recommend this novel set in rural England, The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. If you are feeling strong, Tess of the D'Urbervilles would also be a good choice. You might also like J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country and Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie

Though Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons is a children's book, its descriptions can please anyone. We would also suggest the poems of John Clare. Stella Gibbon's Cold Comfort Farm is a nice antidote to the rural novel that is laden with portentousness and doom.



Gill from Glasgow is looking for books she can read out loud to entertain her dog if she’s not able to walk him.

Gill's dog may enjoy Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem 'To Flush', followed by measured doses of Flush's very own biography by Virginia Woolf.


Aye Mya from Blackpool is looking for short stories for healing heartbreak.

The Literary Clinicians are not sure that there is a cure for heartbreak in short stories, but we can suggest some that might make you forget the pain for a while.

We very much liked Susannah Rickards, Hot Kitchen Snow. Also any of Seán Ó Faoláin's collections and any by Penelope Gilliatt. For healing laughter in short stories, we recommend anything by P.G. Wodehouse. 

Juliet from Taplow is searching for a novel which will 'help me reconnect with my heart which has been wounded'.

To reconnect you to your heart, we recommend Rosamund Lehmann, The Invitation to the Ball and The Weather in Streets, which follow poor Olivia, who loves not wisely but well, and probably will go on lovely unwisely after the end of the novels.

Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love (read Love in a Cold Climate first), which ends

'He was the great love of her life, you know.'
'Oh, dulling,' said my mother sadly,  'One always thinks that. Every, every time.'

I hope that these will help. If they don't read, some poetry, perhaps Gerard Manley Hopkins will do for you what the windhover did for him - 'My heart in hiding, stirred for a bird'.