Writers Recommend: Engaging Reads for Quarantine
26 May 2020
Just as the pandemic hit, I ran around the public library (actually 3 public libraries), frantically collecting books. I lugged 5 or 6 bags of books to my car and put them on shelves in my office. Knowing I had a book deadline coming up, I wanted to be prepared. But I also wondered what I would read for fun. Despite the fact that I have a pretty substantial library of my own, I grabbed a dozen novels. Just in case.
And I’ve read nearly every one of those biographies and history books I checked out. (Full disclosure: I had to. I’m doing research for a book. Deadlines really do kick butts into motion.) But the novels? I tried. Then I shoved them back into the books bags to (someday) be returned to the library. I didn’t feel that spark.
And with apologies to Marie Kondo, I need to feel at least a little spark of joy before I spend hours with a book.
I wasn’t surprised when I heard my friends who are avid readers talk about how difficult reading had become. The most focused people reported having difficulty concentrating. People started reading books that sounded fascinating and found they were just “meh.” Critics and bibliotherapists recommended books. Finally, Mark Athitakis wrote an article helpfully titled, “Forget all those reading lists. During a quarantine, any book will do.”
As I’ve struggled to read, it’s been helpful to go back to my favorite books and reread them. I like to visit characters from popular mystery series, catching up on the books I missed. I’m finding that it’s easier to read novels for children and young adults.
So knowing that some of you might be finding it difficult to read, I wanted to get you the best reading list ever. To that end, I asked my favorite writers to recommend the books they love. In addition, I asked them to share their wisdom. Hopefully, you will find the perfect summer read–either from the books they recommend or the books they’ve written.
I’ve got a big beautiful list here, folks–so grab a glass of iced tea and start reading. The list is organized haphazardly except for the last entry from Jeanette Hurt. She writes about food and drink, and I thought that might be the perfect place to close out this post!
And a note on the links: If you click on the links, they will take you to a great site called Bookshop, which supports local, independent bookstores. When you buy a book from my bookstore on the site, I get a commission and so does a bookstore.
Enjoy and please share with your friends!
It’s always safe inside a story, and no place more magical than inside Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. I am a devoted thriller reader, but this magical realism, gorgeously set in a turn-of-the-century New York, manages to be so rapturously well-written, and so philosophically intriguing, so full of love and passion and journalism and politics. A delicate (and doomed?) young woman, an irresistible cat burglar, a gang called the Woola-Woola Boys, and a winged white horse–I mean, who could ask for more? Well, how about a chillingly glorious sleigh ride across the frozen Lake of the Coheeries, fried oysters and scotch in the voluptuous Oyster Bar, and a love story that spans centuries. Somehow, even now, all these years after having first read it, even thinking about it is transporting.
Words of Wisdom
Every day as an author I take my stories word by word, step by step, day by day. I have learned that if you worry, it won’t matter. If you hurry, it won’t work. Right now, especially, I am trying to stay present, and focus on only what I need to accomplish, one thing at a time. It’s always safe inside your work, too! Before all this, we happily made a choice to do what we do, and it’s still a wise (and valuable) choice now. (In reading, I do find that some how I have less patience with books–the only thing that keeps me captivated is brilliant story-telling.)
About Hank Phillipi Ryan
I’m a USA Today best-selling author of 11–and in August, 12–novels of suspense. I’m also an Emmy winning investigative reporter, and have been for 40 years. My current thriller, The Murder List, is a number one best selling legal thriller. One of my favorite reviews of it said “If John Grisham and Lisa Scottoline had a book baby, The Murder List would be it!” Like all my books, it’s a cat and mouse game…but which character is the cat? But breaking news! My upcoming book, The First to Lie, just got a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called it “stellar”! I still smile every time I think of it. Visit me online at my website www.HankPhillippiRyan.com, and on Twitter and Insta at @hankpryan
I shiver, remembering the opening line of the first of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne’s mysteries (In the Bleak Midwinter): “It was a helluva night to throw away a baby.” Bone-chilling cold and the lakes and forests of the Adirondacks are the backdrop. The story was a riveting page turner, a mystery with a romance running through it and no babies sacrificed for the exigencies of storytelling. The ninth book in the series, Hid From Our Eyes, came out recently and it’s a winner. This is a series to read from beginning to end, and then hope there will be more.
Words of Wisdom
My perennial advice for writing is: “Just hold your nose and write.” Set a timer if you need to and turn off your inner critique. It’s never as bad (or as good) as you think it is at first blush, so save everything.
About Hallie Ephron
New York Times bestselling author Hallie Ephron, Edgar Award finalist and five-time finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, writes books she hopes readers can’t put down. Her eleventh suspense novel, Careful What You Wish For, echoes Marie Kondo life-changing decluttering tips. It features Emily Harlow is a professional organizer who helps people declutter their lives; she’s married to man who can’t drive past a yard sale without stopping. Sometimes she find herself wondering if he sparks joy. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly called it “outstanding.” Reviewing it for TIME magazine, Jamie Lee Curtis wrote, “Careful What You Wish For is not scary–it’s thrilling and suspenseful. … And I found a compelling companion to Emily, a modern-day grown-up Nancy Drew in a sh-tty car and a ponytail, as she searches for her own purpose while hunting down the perpetrator of the emerging crime. She is a friend we would all want to keep–messes included.” Visit Hallie online at her website http://hallieephron.com on Twitter or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/hallie.ephron/
“Hey, we gotta get OFF this planet.” If that sentiment feels very #2020 to you, then you’re not alone. Though I write romance professionally, I love me some science fiction, and I absolutely adored the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (by Douglas Adams) when I was young. Happily, the books are still as startling and hysterical and just plain fun as ever. Mild-mannered Brit Arthur Dent, sarcasm-oblivious alien Ford Prefect, and the whole cast of silly characters are like old friends. Reading the book is like catching a ride with Robin Williams on a spaceship. I highly recommend picking up a copy to reread and get back to a time where “men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.”
Words of Wisdom
“Don’t Panic.” These words of wisdom (from the Guide itself!) are eternally appropriate, no matter what’s going on. I say it when my manuscript is not working, or when the toilet paper shelf as CVS is disconcertingly empty. Life is chaotic, we don’t know what will happen next, and the wait lists at the libraries are bonkers. But DON’T PANIC. Take a breath, stay calm, and plan a way through. And don’t forget your towel.
About Elizabeth Cole
Elizabeth Cole writes both historical and paranormal romance. She very much misses NBA games, but on the bright side, she’s getting a lot of house projects done. She lives with her beloved in a small house in Philadelphia. Her Secrets of the Zodiac series is like Jane Austen crossed with James Bond, and if you want some smart, sassy, sexy escapist reading, you should start with A Heartless Design, the first in the series. Find it by going to elizabethcole.co and clicking on “Books”. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram, where she is @coleheartedgirl.
Elizabeth Little’s Pretty as a Picture, which I just finished and made me laugh out loud. Yep, a mystery that made me LOL under lockdown. The second is Jennifer Hillier’s Little Secrets. This one is dark and entrancing. I am so grateful to both authors for creating books so strong that they took me out of myself for a few hours so my body and mind could rest.
Words of Wisdom
It is hard to read right now, and there’s no way around that. But if you find the right book, you will get back to that love, and that grounding, so I recommend giving a book ten pages (drastic, I know). If it doesn’t grab your attention by then, put it aside for now and pick up the next one. The book that will get you back on your feet is out there, and there’s a good chance it’s on your To Be Read pile.
About Jess Lourey
Jess Lourey writes about secrets. She is the bestselling Agatha, Anthony, and Lefty-nominated author of the critically-acclaimed Mira James mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing “a splendid mix of humor and suspense.” Her latest book, the Amazon Charts bestselling Unspeakable Things, works like homeopathy, bring you back to your childhood so you can heal what needs to be healed. Find out more at www.jessicalourey.com.
Every year I re-read certain books, all stories I first encountered and adored as a kid, and which have probably all influenced my writing in certain ways. Like many people, I fell in love with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice early on, and there’s a deliciousness to the language that I still enjoy. I also love The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth Speare, which tells the story of a high-spirited young woman trying to acclimate to the chilly Puritan climate of 17th century New England, who befriends a Quaker on the outskirts of society and ends up on trial for her actions. During the pandemic, I’m re-reading the mystery novels of Colin Dexter (paperbacks available). Lastly, I’ve always loved Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles which tell the story of Taran, a young assistant pig-keeper who grows to greatness. When I was in grad school I learned that these stories were based on the famous Welsh legend of The Mabinogion, although I far prefer Alexander’s re-telling. I don’t know if adults could pick this series up if they didn’t read it as a kid but it is a classic hero’s quest, complete with romance, which I’ve always found satisfying.
Words of Wisdom
Like everyone, I’m finding it harder to read and write right now. For reading, my family has a set time at bedtime where we all get our books and read for a while. Just the process of doing that makes me ready to read. For writing, I try to break tasks down. Think about one scene. I might even draw it out (literally with pictures) showing myself how ideas connect. Or if the writing isn’t happening, I turn to writing-adjacent stuff, like researching different things on the internet (I write historicals, so there is always something to look up). Usually researching objects and locations will inspire me to keep writing. Be patient with yourself, the writing will happen.
About Susanna Calkins
Susanna Calkins writes the Lucy Campion historical mysteries set in 17th century London and the Speakeasy Mysteries set in 1920s Chicago. She did a lot of cocktail research and listened to a lot of Twenties music while writing Murder Knocks Twice, so that one might be a good escape. The second in that series, The Fate of the Flapper will be out July 28, 2020.
During the pandemic, I’m re-reading the mystery novels of Colin Dexter (paperbacks available at bookshop.org). The series is like a visit from an old friend. A gruff, opinionated, often irascible but always interesting friend—a.k.a. Inspector Morse. Yes, he drinks too much and his manners need polish (would it kill him to say a nice word now and then to his capable, admiring junior partner Robbie Lewis?), but Dexter’s deft presentation of his protagonist is engaging and skillful. Also, at a time when we’re now more dependent than ever on our wireless technology to work, learn, and socialize, it’s comforting to settle into the pre-internet Thames Valley of Morse and Lewis where typewriters clatter, telephones ring, and Morse works the daily newspaper’s crossword with a pencil. Morse likes to solve cases at the local pubs, a pint in hand; Dexter’s descriptions of wood-paneled, cozy bars help me imagine the time when we can again congregate with friends at a favorite watering hole. Until then, it’s quarantinis during Zoom Happy Hours. As Morse might say to Lewis, “Bloody hell!”
About David Krugler
David Krugler, a historian and novelist, is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, where he has taught since completing his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His background in history inspired him to create a series of spy novels featuring a young naval officer investigating communist espionage during World War II. The first title in the series, The Dead Don’t Bleed, appeared in 2016; the sequel, Rip the Angels from Heaven, was published in 2018. For details, visit http://www.davidkrugler.com/fiction
Recently I went back to my shelves to rediscover some feel-good favorites. It was like reuniting with old friends. A few of those special titles included Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts and Jan Karon’s Mitford series. All of their books are gentle on the soul, providing reminders that the world still offers more good than bad.
Words of Wisdom
When times become turbulent, due to situations far beyond my control, I try to channel all my fears, frustrations, or hurts through my writing. The creative arts allow us to turn negative emotions into something positive. I find great comfort in knowing we can use those gifts to offer something beautiful to the universe, countering the darkness that’s always nipping at our heels.
I also find hope by serving others. No matter how hard my situation may feel at any given moment, I know there’s always someone, somewhere who needs something I can offer. I seek out those opportunities, and those loving acts of service keep me feeling humble and grateful at every turn.
My other go-to is nature. I spend as much time as possible outdoors each day, whether in my gardens or on the trails. Taking time to unplug anchors me to the eternal truths and helps me maintain a hopeful mindset.
About Julie Cantrell
Julie Cantrell is a New York Times and USA TODAY, award-winning author, editor, book coach, and TEDx speaker. Her latest novel, Perennials, explores the healing power of forgiveness through a story of sibling rivalry. Her latest work of creative nonfiction, Crescendo (written with Allen Cheney), examines the life of a musical prodigy who overcomes abject poverty and abuse to change the lives (and hearts) of countless youth. WRITING: www.juliecantrell.com EDITING: www.bluesparked.com
One of my favorite re-reads is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It is the fictional memoir of Reverend John Ames, written as a letter to his young son. Ames is at the end of his life, savoring his remaining time. In spite of the losses and the long, lonely days that comprised most of his life, his letter is a sustained reflection on the wondrous beauty and unfathomable mysteries of this world. Gentle, poignant, and full of aching awareness, Gilead is a love letter to life itself, weighty with its narrator’s awe and gratitude for having been here at all.
Words of wisdom
What has helped me most during this strange time is trying to balance work and play. If my day is too structured, I end up feeling trapped, but if it’s too open-ended, I feel lost. My best days are when I put in time at my desk and get to a few household tasks but also go outside, spend time with my family, and do something just for myself.
About Karla Manternach
I live with my family in small-town Wisconsin where I create books for young readers and work as a freelance writer. I’m the author of two middle grade novels with Simon & Schuster: Meena Meets Her Match and Never Fear, Meena’s Here! My new children’s novel, came out right in the middle of the national shutdown, but I think it’s actually a good fit for the times we’re living in. It’s fun and funny, and I think we need that now more than ever–kids especially. It’s about bravely facing difficulties we did not choose. It also celebrates everyday heroes, just like the people who are keeping us safe right now. I hope it helps readers see that small acts of kindness and simply doing our part to help others is what matters most. I’d love to connect with you! Find me at www.karlamanternach.com or on social media @mskarlam
Writing has been truly difficult for me during this pandemic. I find it hard to concentrate for more than short bursts at a time, and so my writing has only been coming in short bursts too. Even my discipline from all those years in the Air Force haven’t helped me there, but I also know that I’m not the only one. This is a time to be kind to ourselves and do what we can.
I am lucky, though, in that I’m still able to read. And what I’ve been reading are things that transport me somewhere else for a while. One of my favorite series is by Jennifer Kincheloe and starts with The Secret Life of Anna Blanc. It’s a delightful romp through early 1900’s Los Angeles. I’m currently reading the third in the series, The Body in Griffith Park, and the first chapter already had me laughing out loud. These books are just that much fun, but are also incredibly smart and well-researched.
About Erica Ruth Neubauer
Mysteries and crime fiction are my first love, which is one of the reasons I reviewed them for six years before becoming an author myself. My debut novel Murder at the Mena House was written with escape reading in mind—a fun trip to Egypt in the 1920’s, with a dash of murder. I also spent 11 years in the Air Force (active, Guard and Reserves), tried my hand at being a cop (almost 2 years) and a high school English teacher (1 year) and now I’m finally a mystery writer, a place I always wanted to be. You can find my website here: https://www.ericaruthneubauer.com. Oh, and I just got my Private Investigator’s license. I’m looking forward to things rebounding so that I can start picking up cases. You can bet they’ll inform my stories later on.
I picked up A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1) by V.E. Schwab because I am a sucker for alternate versions of cities. Yes, Neverwhere is a favourite of mine and so when I saw this story had that vibe happening, I was in. Honestly, by partway through the first chapter I was excited in ways I hadn’t been for a story in a while. It’s got crossdressing thieves, multiple Londons, super cool magic, chicks to the rescue, throne power plays, and an amazing mythology I want to fall into and stay suspended in for a very long time.
Kell and Lila are a fabulous swashbuckling duo. His backstory is totally compelling and fraught with mystery. His brother Rhy is a charmer with a heart of gold that I demand more of. The world building is insanely cool. This is an original, compelling, thoroughly engaging and entertaining book one. If you’re looking for romance, you won’t really find in in this book though it sets up tantalizing and frustrating (in good ways) teases to be played out. Bonus points for actually wrapping up the main plot while still creating enough questions about things to follow. And just FYI? The entire trilogy is a delight.
Words of Wisdom
I write funny, sexy urban fantasy and shockingly, I’m finding it tough these days to write scenes that are either funny or sexy. So I came up with a strategy that I’ve been faithfully following. Every time I sit down at my computer, I tell myself that I only have to manage 1500 super shitty words. That’s it. By giving myself permission to suck, I slowly clawed my way to the end of my first draft. It was an incredible feeling of accomplishment in these trying times and the draft isn’t as horrible as I thought it would be. The important thing is that I can now keep improving because at least I have a completed story to work with. #shitty15 (or whatever number works for you). It won’t let you down. 🙂
About Deborah Wilde
Award-winning author Deborah Wilde jumped from a twelve-year screenwriting career to writing YA romantic comedies under the name Tellulah Darling because her first kiss sucked and she’s compensating. Both a hopeless romantic and a total cynic with a broken edit button, she branched out into adult urban fantasy as Deborah Wilde to satisfy her love of smexy romances and tales of chicks who kick ass. She is all about the happily-ever-after, with a huge dose of hilarity along the way. If you want to escape into a funny sexy urban fantasy series with cool world building and an enemies-to-lovers romance, then pick up The Jezebel Files by yours truly. Blood & Ash is book 1, and book 3 comes out on June 2. Visit her online at www.deborahwilde.com or https://www.facebook.com/DeborahWildeAuthor/
I was lucky enough to read an early draft of Mia Sosa’s latest romantic comedy, The Worst Best Man. Since it’s release, I’ve read it twice more. It’s fun with well-developed characters you want to spend more time with. And at times it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It is the perfect escape from the harsh reality of life right now. I can’t recommend this book—all of Mia’s books, truthfully—enough.
Words of Wisdom
The thing that’s really been getting me through being quarantined is mindfulness. Even if the world is bleak, we still have beautiful moments, and we can live fully in those moments and savor them.
About Liz Lincoln Steiner
Liz has been concocting stories as long as she can remember, and from the beginning they involved two people falling in love. She is the author of 8 contemporary romance novels, including the acclaimed Milwaukee Dragons series. You can find her books at https://lizlincoln.com/books/
When she’s not writing, she spends her time rooting for the UW Badgers and the Green Bay Packers (or yearning for the return of football season), cheering on the US Women’s National Soccer Team and the NWSL, embroidering sassy sayings or nerdy characters (Wonder Woman is her favorite), and drinking too much Diet Coke.
She lives in Milwaukee, WI, with her husband, two kids, two cats, and a turtle.
Though I write mostly beverage and food-related cookbooks and culinary nonfiction, in my heart of hearts, I’m a Star Wars nerd. I’ve loved sci-fi and fantasy ever since I was a little girl, tearing through The Wizard of Oz series (and yes, it’s a series, not just one book with one movie attached to it). I love Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series – she’s a coyote shapeshifter who gets out of a lot of interesting jams – and I love Ilona Andrews’ many series, but especially her Wild Fire and spin-off series about magic in our world with these magical, prime families running things. They’re well written, with compelling, strong heroines, and they’re a heck of a lot of fun.
But I also adore mysteries and thrillers, and I felt like such a fan girl when I met Nick Petrie at your book signing – his Peter Ash series is amazing and fun, and Lee Child’s endorsed him. I also love Joe Ide’s I.Q. series – he’s a fun, modern Sherlock Holmes, kind of, but urban and set in Los Angeles. And I have recommended Save Me From Dangerous Men by S. A. Leichuk more times than I can count in the past year since I discovered it at my local library.
Lately, I’ve been reading The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, and I just love it. It’s a historical novel about a traveling librarian in rural Kentucky in the 1930s, and it’s just riveting.
About Jeanette Hurt
As far as my own book – and why people should get it now – it’s a disconcerting time, and we need comfort, comfort food, that is. But we also should still try to eat reasonably healthy – and that’s where Cauliflower Comfort Food comes in – not only does it have the best recipe for gnocchi that I’ve ever made (cauliflower beats potato in gnocchi, hands down, every time!), but you can also add cauliflower to desserts, and well, you’ll be comforted, but still giving your body some great servings of Vitamin C, K and B vitamins. The cauliflower chocolate chip cookies are particularly amazing. Also, if you’re following paleo, keto, vegan, vegetarian and/or gluten-free diets, its recipes will inspire your eating plans.
One more thing: I probably also should mention my Drink Like a Woman book. If you’re making cocktails or doing virtual happy hours, my book will definitely give you comfort. The recipes are all created and inspired by women, and there are a lot of fun ones like Kissed by a Wookie, Lucille’s Balls and Stop Tequila’ing Me to Smile. Best of all, the cocktails can be made with ingredients already in your pantry or home bar, and they’re easy to follow, making them easier to enjoy after making them.