Jennie is a huge tech dork who has lived in Arizona for so long that 60ºF feels intolerably cold. She really enjoys explosions, giant spaceships, ghoulish monsters, and other common features of the "neat, something else blew up" genres. Although some would say otherwise, she would vociferously argue that graphic novels and genre fiction are totally littérature sérieuse. Sometimes she comes back from her first love — sci-fi and the Milky Way (to see the lights all faded, heaven is overrated, etc) — and reads books about economics, technology, LGBT interests, and philosophy.
The characters in Wetta’s debut novel are unbelievably raw and real—Jack Witcher, his 12 year-old protagonist, is the most unforgettable child narrator since Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird. Likewise, the people populating his family and neighborhood are equally compelling and complex, shown muddling through the author’s masterful construction of small-town angst in the upheaval of the ‘60s. With subplots such as a murder mystery or hilariously awkward first (and forbidden!) love, and timeless themes such as racism, poverty, and self-discovery, there’s plenty of meaty substance in If Jack’s In Love to please any reader. This is an exemplar of high-thinking literary fiction with a compulsively readable satirical twist.
Neal Stephenson has his fingers on the pulse of the thriving geek subculture, offering up another sprawling and absolutely engrossing brick of a novel. REAMDE is equal parts techno-thriller, geeky philosophic navel-gazing, and serious littérature, invoking both Crichton and Vonnegut with the author’s acute skill for writing the thrilling and the absurd. A large, compelling and wholly unique cast of characters—including former spetsnaz hired guns, terrorists, San Francisco hackers, insane Russian gangsters, MI6 agents, Chinese gold farmers, and billionare man-child virtual architects—get caught up in the crossfire of a hacking scheme gone bad. But underneath the slapstick plot, there’s some seriously high-minded world building and techy speculation. REAMDE is a meaty, complicated tour-de-force of “idea porn” wrapped in a satirical page-turner, and sure to please sci-fi and espionage fiction fans equally.
From the immensely silly IKEA Font War to President Obama's iconic 2008 campaign posters, Simon Garfield expertly reveals the wonderful, nerdy power of typefaces in Just My Type. I found this book both completely fascinating and intensely gratifying -- especially since it justified my shameful, sordid love for Gills Sans and passionate hatred of both Papyrus and Comic Sans. Most of all, I'm happy to know that there are people out there that spend just as much time thinking about typeface as I do.
Barry expertly captures the voice of Charlie, his single-minded, anti-social, obsessively left-brained protagonist in his newest, highly readable, speculative novel. Although it’s a quick, action-packed read, Machine Man explores meaty issues such as the metaphysical definition of the self and the philosophical mind-body duality (or lack thereof). Through characters with vastly different, and sometimes morally abhorrent, viewpoints, Barry leaves the reader with more questions than answers—a hallmark of satisfying speculative fiction. Highly recommended to sci-fi fans looking for a fun summer read, or anyone looking for a novel that revels in the gray areas of ethics and leaves you not a small bit disconcerted.
Are ruthless CEOs and politicians more likely to be psychopaths? Are the mechanisms of power tuned and constructed by the 1% of the population unable to feel empathy or remorse? If, like me, you're a pessimist about the state of the world, then the idea of sociopaths calling the shots explains an awful lot. So when I discovered that Jon Ronson (Them: Adventures with Extremists and The Men Who Stare at Goats)—no stranger to the insane—was working on another book on his favorite well trod but darkly fascinating subject, it shot to the top of my reading list. When I finally got my hands on his deranged and utterly absorbing odyssey through the madness industry, it was absolutely everything I hoped it would be. Ronson provides a heady combination of his signature self-deprecating wit and unsettling interviews with psychopaths and the people (not much saner themselves) who diagnose, condemn, or advocate for them. In his travels, he discovers a lot more about himself, the "science" of psychology, and the hidden structures of our society. Peppered with disquieting insight and riveting moral dilemmas, The Psychopath Test is insanely (pun intended) good, and extremely hard to put down.
Isaac Marion’s debut novel sparkles with effervescent prose and compelling, heartrendingly human characters—whether they are alive or the undead. R, the undead protagonist, is a homage to classic Night of the Living Dead zombies with a twist—his pensive and brilliantly verbose inner life contradicts his shuffling, moaning personage. He remembers nothing of his own past, but experiences the addictive pleasures of live by snacking on the brains of the living. One of these brains belonged to Perry, the melancholy artiste boyfriend of one Julie—the very girl he finds himself starting to fall for. As R struggles with his feelings for Julie and whether they are real, or the shadows of the love he glimpsed in mouthfuls of Perry’s brain, Warm Bodies asks: is life merely the daily motions of our cells, or a state of being fueled by love, hope, and the human connection? A must-read for zombie fans aching for something new, or anyone with a taste for brains and gore, action scenes begging for a film adaptation, and a little bit of transformative romance.
If reality television is a disaster, Jennifer Pozner (founder of Women In Media & News) is its forensic investigator: making sense out of seemingly harmless shows like American Idol, The Bachelor, America’s Next Top Model, Flavor of Love, and others. With stellar, absorbing insight, she teases apart the decade-long history of reality television, examining its impact on our culture, its toxic messages, and how and why it has come to dominate the airwaves. Startlingly progressive, Pozner leaves no stereotype untouched: from blacks, to women, to gays, and to less-talked about (but no less important) minorities like transgendered people and Asian-Americans, she argues that reality television thrives and persists on the ugliest, most bigoted stories unscrupulous television producers have to sell. Funny, poignant, and seriously educational, Reality Bites Back is required reading for everyone living in the era of “reality” television.
If you told me that not to touch my hair with shampoo, brush, or comb for a month, I’d look at you funny. If you told that and that my hair would look fabulous too, I’d ask if you were crazy. But Lorraine Massey proposes “curly girls” do exactly that—and it works. I haven’t brushed, combed, or shampooed my hair in weeks. I’ve worn my hair down more this month than I ever had in my life. Total strangers compliment me on my full-bodied, glossy, frizz-free curls, even on those high-humidity days where everyone else has their hair up! Massey’s routines for curly or wavy hair might seem bizarre, but they really work—I feel like I’ve wasted years of my life with over-processed, dry, unruly hair that I hated when I could have amazing, beautiful hair that I love. Plus, her tips and recipes are far healthier and more environmentally-friendly than your old regimens and products. Going natural and finally having low-maintenance fantastic hair… what’s not to like? Give Curly Girl a try and you’ll see what I mean!
Matt Haig is known for his dark takes on “ordinary” family life. The Radleys—literary fiction about the modern nuclear family with an oddly metaphoric vampiric twist—is Haig at his best. Peter—limping towards a midlife crisis—and Helen—plagued by secrets and regrets—have lied to their unpopular, awkward children Rowan and Clara since they were born. They’re all “abstainers”—vampires who refuse to drink blood. Their practiced lies and feigned suburban banality fall apart when shy Clara gives in to her violent nature and Uncle Will, a practicing vampire, visits to unearth the secrets and habits of a sordid, bloody past they thought they could forget. Haig’s dark humor and wit pulled me in to the Radley’s dramas; teenagers and adults alike will also find it easy to relate to the characters. Through domestic derangement and vampire lore, Haig crafts a satisfying, well-paced novel that explores denial, hard bargains, the bonds of family, and what sin can cost—or win—us.
Even with disturbing tales of student suicides evoked by ruthless bullying screaming from recent headlines, few of us are willing to delve into the unremarkable daily tortures behind the spectacle. Lelic brings the issue of bullying—in the school and in workplace, by children and adults—home with his unsettling, penetrating debut novel. Through his protagonist, police investigator Lucia, he asks, “Why was the onus always on the weak when it was the strong who had a liberty to act? Why were the weak obliged to be so brave when the strong had license to behave like such cowards?” His characters are unremarkable and average—which makes their inaction, their cruelty, all the more chilling. Through cutting prose, he masterfully evokes the gut-wrenching betrayal that bullying victims feel when their cries for help go unanswered, and authority tacitly endorse, or even encourage, unspeakable barbarism. A Thousand Cuts leaves you with the disquieting question: what do we cause when we scorn the weak and plea ignorance in the face of cruelty?
The Moral Landscape is the most optimistic book I've read all year. Harris starts with the common-sense proposition that science (any rational study of reality) can tell us what is morally right or wrong. From there, he offers the reader a machete to cut through the thorny proposition that only religious demagogues have anything universal to say about morality, and that science and liberal cultural relativists must remain forever silent—and never turn "is" propositions into "oughts". Pithy enough to quote around the dinner table, but academic enough to reference in an academic essay (especially if you tackle the 100+ pages of notes and cross-references), The Moral Landscape makes a great gift for anyone looking to think critically about moral truths. Now readers can offer no apology when they say that the worst things humanity has to offer—genocide, bigotry, and other jingoism—are wrong in principle, not opinion. As for me, I'm definitely putting Harris's masterwork up next to John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism in the philosophy section of my bookshelf.
The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet (Paperback)
Cullen combines climatology with sociology to present a glimpse into the future for seven areas sure to be impacted by the all-but-inevitable climate change in The Weather of the Future. Using compelling data we see how varied and extreme the results of climate change will be in different areas—Bangladesh flooded, California's agricultural industries in ruin, a melted Greenland transformed into a cornucopia of minerals ripe for the picking, and New York City battered by hurricanes. But Cullen's book is more than just 300 pages of doom-and-gloom, she also offers optimistic views of what certain communities—like the Inuit in the Arctic circle and New York's Climate Change Adaptation Task Force—have done to prepare for an intimidating future. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to connect apocalyptic headlines about melting ice to the weather patterns we might see just outside our front doors.
Doctorow isn't afraid to write long, meaty books with complex political and economic themes. As someone not enamored of dumbing-down literature for teens, I loved For The Win. Although it's set in the present, Doctorow's novel about virtual economies has enough sci-fi flair and steam-punk-esque vibes to appeal to fans of apocalyptic futures such as Hunger Games or the Uglies Trilogy. Doctorow writes superb characters: driven, ambitious kids with revolutionary spirits and a good heads on their shoulders. I especially liked 15-year-old Mala ("General Robotwalla") whose leadership and vision carried her virtual troops to victory. For the Win has a lot to teach readers about how serious, and deadly, any economic system—even the virtual ones—can become. Doctorow has intense zeal for the new political crises of the virtual age—privacy, gaming, intellectual freedom, and social justice—and it shows through the passion he channels to craft this masterful thriller. Highly recommended to adults, teens, and anyone who knows that it's never just a game.
I Don't Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Se nsitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I've Dated (Paperback)
Instead of urging unlucky-in-love readers to "settle" for Mr. Right There, Klausner penned a scathing and hilarious anti-Marry Him manifesto about the "Nice Guys"—faux-sensitive "take care of me" guys—that every woman has dated—and later discovered that they weren't so nice. I thought that Klausner's message was like a breath of fresh (and sane!) air in a sea of dating books telling women to "settle" for immature needy guys. Her point that some Nice Guys that are intimidated by pretty women aren't cute and shy, they're "reacting to the intimidating female as an intruder, an alien, and somebody they can't relate to," was totally spot-on. This isn't a "woe is me" fest though! Reading I Don't Care About Your Band was like talking to a really cool friend who was always ready to tell you that you're so awesome that even a long lonely dry spell or a spectacularly bad relationship can't destroy you. On the other hand are the dating books tell women to "not feel so good about yourself" so that you pass up too many dudes and "end up alone"... guess which message I prefer? I really recommend this book to anyone that wants a little company in the shared misery of bad relationships, or just wants to laugh at the bad behavior we put up with in the search for love.
Lev Grossman’s fantasy novel is filled with so much more than satisfyingly complex magic and mystery; it’s also tribute to favorites like Rowling, Lewis, and Tolkien. The Magicians is character-driven in a way that many fantasy novels are not. Quentin, the protagonist, invokes shades of The Catcher in the Rye’s gifted but disaffected Holden, while Alice, his foil, mirrors a more traditional hero. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever once wished to be whisked away from a life of normalcy to Middle-Earth or Hogwarts, especially misfits like me who sometimes wish their drama was a bit more fantastic.
Common sense: self-acceptance and health is more important than any number on a scale. But with the constant bombardment of fad diets and feel-bad marketing, most of us are hard-pressed to admit it. With the tongue-in-cheek wit of their blog writing, Harding and Kirby use this common sense proposition to present twenty-seven ways to reframe everything you know about dieting and weight. Isn’t it time that someone said that being unshakably happy and healthy is more important than waiting to enjoy life until you’re acceptably thin? I recommend this book to anyone, because everyone should feel fabulous at any weight!
The inspiration for the same-named movie starring Michael Sera (2009), Youth In Revolt is even funnier (and dirtier) in print. Nick Twisp can't get a break: after unsuccessful schemes to lose his virginity and the increasingly dangerous (and illegal) hijinks of his alter-ego, Francois, he finds himself a homeless fugitive. What’s a 14-year old boy in search of sex and rebellion to do? Youth in Revolt chronicles the raunchy slapstick misadventures of an honors-student turned oversexed revolutionary. This is the subversive coming-of-age story for children of the 90s—and a daringly naughty book that you'll read again and again. If riotous laugh-out-loud novels are your thing, this isn’t one to miss!
Poignant, moving, and evocative, Stephen Crane's coming-of-age Civil War novel is just as relevant today as the day it was first published. The Red Badge of Courage is told from the view of the nameless "youth", a naïve teenager drawn into the horrors of warfare. With stunning imagery and unsettling ethical dilemmas, this is one classic that will satisfy any literary connoisseur, young or old. More than that though, it is the titular example of "show, not tell" when it comes to setting and characterization. How Crane illustrates the turbulence of the protagonist's emotions as his worldview is traumatically uprooted is sublime and almost unmatched, even over a century after the initial publication.
Plato’s Republic probably one of the titular titles anyone thinks of when they contemplate ancient philosophy—and for good reason. Unlike contemporaries such as Zeno and Aristotle, Plato’s theories of forms and intense commitment to a political meritocracy still have meaning and application, even over two thousand years after they were written. And unlike even more “modern” philosophers like Kant or Mill, Plato’s political and ethical theories are startlingly modern and mostly devoid of unsavory biases like apologetics for colonialism or musings on the inherent inferiority of the female sex. Plato’s Republic is a masterwork of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and political philosophy. Any inspiring philosopher really ought to have this title under his or her belt—not only for posterity, but also because it truly is good enough to stand the test of the millennia solely on its own merits.