Stuck at home and running out of things to do? Getting depressed as the case counts rise? Why not pick up a good book and lose yourself for a few hours or a day in another reality? Here are fifteen books representing a wide range of subjects that are great to read during the pandemic. And they’ve all been published within the last year or so.
Below you’ll find five titles in each of three categories: nonfiction, mysteries & thrillers, and science fiction. Within each category, they’re listed in alphabetical order by the authors’s last names. And each is linked to its review.
Nonfiction to read during the pandemic
A Warning by Anonymous, a Senior Trump Administration Official—An anonymous White House Republican tells all
The reception for this book has been poor, ostensibly because it contains “nothing new.” What critics seem to mean by that charge is that there is no juicy new headline-worthy disclosure that leaps off the page. Of course, there has been a flood of other books by Trump Administration insiders who have mined most of the salacious material. But instead of zeroing in on one or a handful of shameful episodes, as other tell-all books do, A Warning conveys the Big Picture of life in the Trump White House. The author doesn’t single out individual meetings or conversations to make his points. Instead, most of the time, he cites numerous examples. And the effect is numbing.
Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox—Life undercover in the CIA chasing suitcase nukes
Most of us know what little we know about the work of the CIA from novels. Of course, much of that, perhaps most of it, is fanciful. Former CIA officers do write memoirs from time to time, but often, as the Washington Post noted (June 4, 2012), they write to “settle scores about spies.” And, as the New York Times revealed (March 15, 2005) in “Ex-Spies Tell It All,” their portrait of the Central Intelligence Agency is sometimes “none too flattering.” It’s refreshing, then, to encounter a memoir without a particular axe to grind about the agency. The book, which is both engrossing and beautifully written, is Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox.
Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream by Nicholas Lemann—Economic inequality deconstructed in a brilliant historical study
Lemann traces the evolution of the three “big ideas” that have guided economic policymakers in the decades since World War I. He characterizes them as institutions, transactions, and networks. Institutions included large corporations, labor unions, federal government agencies, and other traditional repositories of power and authority—the forces responsible for the unparalleled prosperity of the United States in the decades following World War II. He identifies transactions as the governing reality in the American economy from the 1980s until the first decade of the 21st century—a reality that emerged on the basis of government policies and judicial decisions grounded in the work of the champions of laissez-faire economics of the Chicago School. However, today networks are gaining the ascendancy, a manifestation of the power of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft in the United States and Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent in China.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean—An arson fire, the expanded role of libraries, and eccentric librarians
How good is The Library Book? It’s unquestionably one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in recent years. Susan Orlean has a magical way with prose, and she turns what could easily be a monumentally boring subject into a captivating tale. Even if you’re not a passionate devotee of public libraries, you’ll be enchanted by this beautifully researched history of the Los Angeles Public Library, the eccentric librarians who have sometimes run it—and the fire that nearly destroyed it more than thirty years ago.
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells—Climate change is worse than you think—much, much worse
They’ve been lying to us. Or, better put, shading the truth. And I’m not referring to the climate deniers in the White House and Congress. We know they’re lying. The problem is, the scientists who have been warning us about climate change aren’t telling the whole truth. In fact, that bad habit is so widespread there’s even a name for it: scientific reticence. The reality is, climate change is worse than you think—much, much worse. And the only place I’ve found the whole story laid out in plain English is in an eloquent new book by David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth. This truly extraordinary book should be must reading for every elected official at any level of government throughout the United States.
Mysteries and thrillers to read during the pandemic
The Night Fire (Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch #2) by Michael Connelly—Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch in a brilliant police procedural
Michael Connelly introduced LAPD Detective Harry Bosch with the publication in 1992 of The Black Echo. Now, two dozen novels later, Harry is retired from the police force and nearing seventy. With the writing on that wall as clear as it could be, Connelly debuted the much younger Detective Renee Ballard in 2017 in The Late Show and paired her with Harry a year later in Dark Sacred Night. It’s clear this is a marriage (of sorts) made wherever good marriages are made.
The Lost Man by Jane Harper—A superb murder mystery set in the Australian outback
Imagine a whodunit without a detective, or an investigator of any sort, for that matter. Take a family of three brothers, their mother, one wife, two young children, and a long-time hired hand. Now, one of the brothers has died. Did he commit suicide? Or was it murder? And if it was, who did it? Was it someone in the family . . . or a woman out of the murdered man’s past? Yes, this is a mystery as puzzling as you’ll find in any detective novel. And Jane Harper tells the tale beautifully. The Lost Man is a truly outstanding murder mystery.
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott—Doctor Zhivago and the women in the CIA typing pool
In recent years, writers have been churning out a growing number of books about the long-neglected role of women in espionage. For instance, former MI5 Director General Stella Rimington highlights the work of English counterespionage in the Liz Carlyle series, ten books strong to date. And a number of excellent recent nonfiction books celebrate the diverse contributions of women to the spy game. Now, in a novel that appears on a great many lists of the most anticipated fiction of 2019, comes Lara Prescott’s novel, The Secrets We Kept. It’s a gripping account of women’s role in one of the CIA’s highest-profile Cold War operations, and it’s grounded in fact.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson—An African-American spy in the maelstrom of Cold War rivalry in Africa
“I was a Special Agent in the FBI from 1983 to 1987, and in that time CIA hired me twice as a temporary contractor, the phrase they use for spy.” The narrator is Marie Mitchell. American Spy is her story, written in 1992 in the first person as a diary for her young twin sons to read when they’re older. The action spans the thirty preceding years—from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the “New World Order” following the end of the Cold War.
The American Agent (Maisie Dobbs #15) by Jacqueline Winspear—Maisie Dobbs pursues a killer in Britain during the Blitz
Digging into a new Maisie Dobbs novel is like reuniting with an old friend. And she’s been my friend ever since, as a teenager, she enlisted as a nurse and served at a casualty clearing section behind the front lines in France during World War I. Now, in The American Agent, the fifteenth novel in the series, Maisie has built a successful practice as a “psychologist and investigator.” She’s in her early forties, a widow with an aristocratic title she never uses, and the wealthy heir of her late mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche. And, like millions of others living in Britain during the Blitz, she is bravely continuing to press on despite the nightly threat of death from the skies.
Science fiction to read during the pandemic
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood—The Handmaid’s Tale sequel follows the Hulu streaming adaptation
Sometimes a screen adaptation veers far from the trajectory of the novel on which it’s based. That’s not the case with Margaret Atwood‘s Handmaid’s Tale sequel, The Testaments. Instead, Atwood takes up the story of the women of Gilead following events seen on the screen. She had consulted closely with the producers of the streaming version, and it shows. And although June, the Handmaid herself, makes only a cameo appearance late in the novel, and others narrate the story, The Testaments is all about June and her daughters. While it’s not necessary to view the Tale on Hulu before reading The Testaments, you’ll probably need to read the Handmaid’s Tale first to fully appreciate the story.
Semiosis (Semiosis Duology #1) by Sue Burke—Can plants think? These colonists on an alien world learn the answer the hard way.
Why is it, do you think, that animals are capable of thought, and plants aren’t? Or are they? Certainly, many aspects of plant behavior suggest conscious action. And at least one scientist, Daniel Chamovitz, director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University, “argues [that a plant] can see, smell and feel. It can mount a defense when under siege, and warn its neighbors of trouble on the way. A plant can even be said to have a memory.” And whether any of this means that plants can think is the subject of Chamovitz’s book, What a Plant Knows. The book was reviewed in 2012 in Scientific American. Now, author and translator Sue Burke takes the argument several steps further in her unique first contact story, Semiosis.
The Perfect Wife by J. P. Delaney—A psychological thriller in a science fiction setting
Abbie Cullen wakes up bandaged in what seems to be a hospital, wondering how she got there. She’s in her twenties, an artist, a mother of a young severely autistic son, and wife of Tim Scott, a multimillionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur widely regarded as a genius in artificial intelligence. Oh, and she’s also what Tim calls a cobot, a companion robot. “‘You’re artificial,’ he explains. ‘Intelligent, conscious . . . but man-made.’” Later, she asks, “‘What am I? A prototype?’ He shakes his head. ‘Much more than that. A quantum leap. A paradigm shift. And, most important, my wife.’”
The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal—An astonishingly good science fiction novel about the first manned mission to Mars
The first book in Mary Robinette Kowal‘s Lady Astronaut series was “engrossing to the point that I had to tear myself away to eat or sleep. The Calculating Stars is a tour de force of historical fiction. It’s also an example of just how good hard science fiction can be.” And now I can say the same about its sequel, The Fated Sky. This amazing novel about the first manned mission to Mars is one of the best works of science fiction that I’ve read in quite awhile.
Deep Past by Eugene Linden—Is homo sapiens the only highly intelligent species ever to walk the Earth?
Most hard science fiction is about space travel, first contact, robotics, the multiverse, or some other topic that’s familiar to fans schooled in science. But here’s one that’s about paleontology, and what a revelation it is! Eugene Linden, who previously wrote more than a dozen nonfiction books about science, technology, and the environment, turns his attention to fiction in Deep Past. This tensely plotted and thoroughly enjoyable novel poses questions most scientists are loath to ask. For instance, why is it that homo sapiens is the only highly intelligent species ever to walk the Earth? Or are we?
For further reading
You might also be interested in:
- 20 top nonfiction books about history plus more than 80 other good ones
- Top 10 mystery and thriller series (plus dozens of other good ones)
- 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers (plus 80 others)
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels
For a taste of how mainstream literary critics viewed books published during roughly the same period, see my post, Literary critics say these are the best books of 2019.
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.