Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

What I’ve been reading while we #stayathome

Today marks 7 weeks since we began sheltering-in-place. Although some of the restrictions on our daily life have been lifted — landscaping and construction are allowed now, for example — we non-essential workers are still asked to remain at home as much as possible. And of course, schools remain closed and we’re still not allowed to socialize with anyone we don’t actually live with.

With all the extra cooking, cleaning, and educating sheltering-in-place entails, I find I haven’t had much left in the well when it comes to writing. Fortunately, my reading skills remain intact. This would be so much harder to endure if I lost the ability to read.

What I look for from books these days is a bit different than it was in the before times. Life in a pandemic is definitely too precious to waste reading books I don’t enjoy, so I am being utterly ruthless about setting aside books that don’t work for me for one reason or another. In that respect, telling you that a book is well-written is a complete waste of time. The mere fact that I finished it means the writer meant my standards for good story-telling.

Instead, I’ve decided to rank these books on whether they are good company during a pandemic.

Pandemic Guest Rating Scale:

☕️☕️☕️☕️☕️: Great Guest! I would absolutely read more books by this author during the pandemic. I might even reread this one.

☕️☕️☕️☕️: Good Guest. I enjoyed our time together and would look for more books from this writer, even if I don’t read this particular one again.

☕️☕️☕️: Meh. The book was fine, and I don’t regret reading it, but I may not look for more from this author right now. Maybe after the pandemic.

☕️☕️: Would Not Invite Again. The book itself was good enough to finish, but I wouldn’t read more from this author.

☕️: So Many Regrets. If I am doing this right, I’ll never use this ranking, because it basically means I forced myself to power through a book I didn’t enjoy.

One last note before we plow ahead

I’ve read 17 books since quarantine started. It’s wildly impractical to tell you about all of them here, so I’m going to limit each post to five books from (hopefully) five different genres. I’ll keep posting reviews periodically until I run out of books.

Don’t want to wait for the posts?

See everything I’ve read so far (and its preliminary Pandemic Guest Rating), on my Read in quarantine Twitter thread or my Goodreads page.

Lord Sunday (Keys to the Kingdom #7) by Garth Nix

Book cover for Lord Sunday shows a young boy hiding his eyes while standing in front of a bird cage behind which a winged figure looms. All on a green background of course, because Lord Sunday rules over a garden.
Genre: Middle Grade FantasyPublisher: Scholastic
Year Published: 2010Format: Audiobook
Source: LibraryPGR: ☕️☕️☕️☕️

Book Summary: Lord Sunday

On the seventh day, there was a choice.

The House is falling apart, and when it is destroyed, all existence will be destroyed with it, Arthur Penhaligon and his friends Leaf and Suzy are caught in the chaos, separated by events but drawn together in their fight to survive. They must use every power at their disposal – magical or practical – to defeat the enemies attacking them from all sides.”

From the book description on Goodreads

Pandemic Guest Rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️

By Book #7, the crisis in the series and the mechanisms through which the story will be told have become fairly clear. Something will happen either on Earth or within the House that requires Arthur, a middle schooler now grown unusually tall for his age, to fall out of time and into the House to confront a new and ever more deadly threat. Each of the Trustees of the House personifies a different deadly sin. For example, Mister Monday is consumed by sloth, Grim Tuesday by avarice, and Drowned Wednesday by gluttony.

As Arthur confronts each Trustee, the magic of the House begins to fail, throwing the House and by extension, the Earth, into chaos and war. To save his family (and the universe), Arthur must defeat Lord Sunday and claim the final key to the House.

Overall, this series has enough emotional resonance to keep me invested in the characters. And yet the events in the book are unreal enough that the story never required more emotional bandwidth than I could offer.

Note: The deadly threat in Mister Monday (Keys to the Kingdom #1) is a pandemic. This may not be the best series to start if you’re sensitive to things like that right now.

Verses for the Dead (Pendergast #18) by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Genre: Adult Mystery/ThrillerPublisher: Grand Central Publishing
Year Published: 2018Format: Audiobook
Source: LibraryPGR: ☕️☕️☕️☕️

Book Summary: Verses for the Dead

“After an overhaul of leadership at the FBI’s New York field office, Special Agent A. X. L. Pendergast is abruptly forced to accept an unthinkable condition of continued employment: the famously rogue agent must now work with a partner.

“Pendergast and his new teammate, junior agent Coldmoon, are assigned to Miami Beach, where a rash of killings by a bloodthirsty psychopath is distinguished by a confounding M.O.: cutting out the hearts of his victims and leaving them–along with cryptic handwritten letters–at local gravestones, unconnected save for one bizarre detail: all belonged to women who committed suicide.”

From the book description on Goodreads

Pandemic Guest Rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️

There is something comforting about returning to a series with so many predictable plot elements. I know what I’m going to get with a Pendergast mystery down to the language in which the characters are going to be described and the relative gruesomeness of the murders, and that sort of familiarity is especially valuable to me right now.

I started reading these books back in the day when print was the only option. Over the years, I began reading them as ebooks. But lately, I’ve taken to simply checking the audiobooks out as they become available from my local library.

Although they had different narrators for the earlier books in the series, Rene Auberjonois has narrated every Pendergast audiobook I’ve listened to so far. At first, I didn’t care for his style. He was a little too snooty for my taste.

Listening to this book in quarantine however, I no longer mind the little extra touch of arrogance that creeps into his voice when he explains yet again that Pendergast is one of the few humans to have ever mastered the deep meditative art of Chongg Ran, taught to him in only a year by Tibetan monks. It turned what could have been an irritating repetitive description into an essential part of the Pendergast experience. The sheer campiness of it was oddly comforting. This, at least, remains the same.

The Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel #1) by Connie Willis

Genre: Adult Sci-Fi/Time TravelPublisher: Bantam Spectra
Year Published: 1992Format: ebook
Source: Previously-owned copyPGR: ☕️☕️☕️

Book Summary: The Doomsday Book

“For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.”

From the book description on Goodreads

Pandemic Guest Rating: ☕️☕️☕️

Before COVID-19, this was a 5-coffee book for me. I’ve read it a few times over the years, and it has always been a reliably enjoyable time. Naturally, it was one of the first books I turned to when looking for a comfort read for my sheltering-in-place experience.

Sadly, it turns out that reading about a plague killing off every member of a household in a world that had no medical tools capable of defeating it was not a great choice for the early days of a pandemic sparked by a hitherto unknown illness to which the average person appears to have no immunity. The bits about how difficult and frantic a task contact tracing can be remain interesting, as were the snide comments in the modern half of the novel about how terrible Americans are at dealing responsibly with epidemics.

But the effect of the Black Death on the uninoculated back in the Middle Ages, and really, even just the effect of the new strain of flu introduced into the modern day population of Oxford hit just a little too close to home.

That said, I love Connie Willis and know I’ll read more from her one day. Just maybe not during the pandemic.

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

Genre: Cozy satirePublisher: Open Road Media (ebook edition)
Year Published: First Published 1950Format: ebook
Source: PurchasePGR: ☕️☕️☕️☕️☕️

Book Summary: Some Tame Gazelle

Barbara Pym is a master at capturing the subtle mayhem that takes place in the apparent quiet of the English countryside. Fifty-something sisters Harriet and Belinda Bede live a comfortable, settled existence. Belinda, the quieter of the pair, has for years been secretly in love with the town’s pompous (and married) archdeacon, whose odd sermons leave members of his flock in muddled confusion. Harriet, meanwhile, a bubbly extrovert, fends off proposal after proposal of marriage. The arrival of Mr. Mold and Bishop Grote disturb the peace of the village and leave the sisters wondering if they’ll ever return to the order of their daily routines. Some Tame Gazelle, first published in Britain nearly 50 years ago, was the first of Pym’s nine novels.”

From the book description on Goodreads

Pandemic Guest Rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️☕️

Barbara Pym’s debut novel is filled with subtle mayhem and sly commentary on the mesh of relationships and romantic interests in a small English countryside village. In other words, it’s exactly what I needed after the peril of the Doomsday book. I can already tell Pym is going to become a frequent guest during this pandemic.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Genre: Nonfiction/HistoryPublisher: Harper
Year Published: 2015Format: Print
Source: PurchasePGR: ☕️☕️

Book Summary: Sapiens

“From a renowned historian comes a groundbreaking narrative of humanity’s creation and evolution that explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be human.

“One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Yet today there is only one—homo sapiens. What happened to the others? And what may happen to us?”

From the book description on Goodreads

Pandemic Guest Rating: ☕️☕️

Full disclosure — I’ve been reading Sapiens on and off for about 18 months. It’s taken me a while because although Sapiens is fascinating, if I read it for too long, I end up not liking humans all that much. We can be so short-sighted and are just plain bad at sharing. It’s a depressing view of humanity, and one I could only read in short doses even in the Before Times. It’s especially hard to take right now, which is why I’ve only given Sapiens a 2-coffee cup Pandemic Guest Rating here.

Note: If you visit my Goodreads page, you’ll see that I gave it four-stars there. The disparity is simply this: Timing. Sapiens both taught me a lot and challenged me to think differently about things I tend to overlook or take for granted. Those are features I normally like in a nonfiction book. But Sapiens doesn’t have the optimistic worldview I need in a pandemic read.

Number of books remaining on my own Currently Reading list: 39, down from 40 last week.

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